Growing student capacity - a creative solution

Growing student capacity - a creative solution
Date24th May 2021AuthorGuest AuthorCategoriesPolicy and News

Jane Hopcroft, principal at Connell Co-op College, explains in this piece how she has been able to grow her site for more students at minimal cost - and while helping out other local stakeholders.

Connell Co-op College is a small sixth form college located next to the Etihad Stadium in East Manchester. The college was built in 2014 following a successful Free School bid and was designed with capacity for 600 students. The college became part of Co-op Academies Trust in 2019 and has benefited from significant investment as part of that arrangement. We’re a popular college in an area with rapidly increasing numbers of secondary age students, so the level of local demand for more high quality sixth form college places is growing.

We've done what we can to increase student capacity beyond 600 by completing work within our building to create more usable space and tweaked the timetable so students are on site for 4 days per week instead of 5 days. But as college Principal, the biggest challenge has been to find a way to grow capacity further. We wanted to provide more places for students and make it easier to achieve long term financial sustainability.

The Trust has a number of local academies and was successful in a Free School bid for a new academy, a mile or so from the college. Great news for Connell, because having a Co-op Academy on our doorstep brings many benefits. However, an additional challenge facing the Local Authority and the Trust was where to locate the Year 7 and Year 8 pupils from September 2021 whilst waiting for completion of the main building.  

A very creative solution was found. This involved:

  • A new permanent modular building within the college grounds to house the Year 7 and Year 8 pupils from September 2021. The building includes a number of large classrooms, a staff room, a playground, reception and toilets along with additional car parking.
  • Funding largely from the local authority, using monies allocated by them for the ‘temporary solution’, plus a financial contribution from the Trust, with the college paying for some of the kit-out.
  • Enormous work from the project team at the Trust to turn around design, planning and construction within a year.
  • Some shared use of the college building including kitchen, sports facilities, and ad hoc use of other areas.

The benefits to all stakeholders from this creative solution are:

  • A cost-effective solution for the Local Authority
  • A comfortable home for the academy pupils prior to moving into the main building in 2023, including access to some great college facilities 
  • Reassurance for Year 7 parents and carers that the Trust has prioritised the needs of their children
  • A strong relationship between the school and the college - developed before the school even opens! There is a tremendous opportunity for collaboration, for the benefit of all. This is especially helpful for teachers on either site to provide mutual support.
  • A shiny new building full of large classrooms for the college, once the school children move to their new school
  • An increased number of high quality sixth form college places to meet local demand 

There have been some significant challenges along the way. These include:

  • Timescales - design to completion within a year is incredibly tight. Hats off to everyone involved, especially the Trust project team for making this happen. 
  • Connecting the systems between the two buildings, including CCTV, fire safety, alarms and IT.
  • Pressure on diaries - inevitably the project is really time consuming, particularly in the context of the challenges around managing Covid. Fortunately, there’s a great team at Connell and a number of staff have helped out.
  • The need for compromise on a number of levels:
    • The design requirements for the school and the college weren’t always aligned, so sensible compromises were found
    • The college would have liked a larger building and more facilities, but we were limited by the funds available
    • The school and the college will be sharing some facilities, so timetables were compared and tweaks made to maximise usage options
  • Engaging with academy parents and pupils when there is no site - the college has provided facilities for the academy to host transition days, conduct interviews  and plan for September
  • Solutions for shared facilities - the Trust culture is founded on cooperation. Solutions have been found for  us to work together with facilities management, IT management, cleaning contracts, catering contracts and so on.

At the time of writing, the building is on track for completion and handover planned for August this year. The college continues to work very closely with the Trust project team and the newly appointed Head of School to work through any challenges and find resolutions. Everyone involved has a positive mindset, and is solutions-focused.  

When I reflect on our good fortune, I draw the conclusion that there’s a certain amount of serendipity involved. However, it also highlights the need to be open to thinking of opportunities outside the box. For all of the stakeholders involved, the outcome is amazing.  Ultimately the college can offer more high-quality sixth form college places to meet the growing local demand, and in a few years’ time, we hope to be welcoming back those Year 7 pupils as students of the college! 

SFCA has been campaigning to #CreatetheCapital for some time so that more students across the country can benefit from a high-quality sixth form place. Last week, DfE launched its Post-16 Capacity Fund, the first capital fund just for sixth form specialist providers, and applications are open until mid-June. Apply here.

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