Meet the superheads – the husband and wife who have transformed schools
Sir Kevin Satchwell remembers how his time as headmaster of Thomas Telford School could easily have been over before it began.
"When we started, we were the pariahs of the education system," he says.
Thomas Telford opened in 1991, one of the 15 'city technology colleges' created as part of a flagship government policy encouraging private companies to invest in the education system.
It is fair to say it was not universally popular. Shropshire County Council called for a judicial review to prevent it from opening. Wolverhampton Council leader Norman Davies warned it would plunge the borough's education policy into chaos. Bruce Grocott, then MP for The Wrekin, called for it to be dropped immediately.
"We used to be told that when the Labour Party gets in, it will close this school," Sir Kevin recalls, in his blunt Black Country accent.
So it came as something of a surprise when, two days after being elected Britain's first Labour prime minister in 18 years, that Tony Blair called the then Mr Satchwell for his advice about education policy.
"He said was going to base his national education system on Thomas Telford School," says Sir Kevin.
Some 28 years after the school's controversial opening, the Thomas Telford Multi Academy Trust is now firmly established as one of the leading education providers in the West Midlands, with schools in Sandwell and Walsall, as well two more in Telford. Last month it was revealed it would be expanding into Wolverhampton, creating an extra 150 places at the West Midlands University Technical College. That is some expansion for a school once considered the pariah of the education system.
So what has made the Thomas Telford schools succeed, where others have failed?
Sir Kevin, who had previously been headmaster of Moseley Park School in Bilston, says in the early days one of the great benefits of the city technology college model was the freedom it provided.
"It allowed us to design our own curriculum," he says.
It enabled the school to operate a longer school day, giving the children 32 hours' lesson time compared to the average of 23.5. The longer school day meant no teacher had to spend more than four days a week in the classroom, allowing them a day to devote to lesson preparation and marking. Instead of the traditional twice-a-year reports, Thomas Telford provided no fewer than 10 school reports for each pupil throughout the year. And the school does not do parents' evenings.
"We give them 10 reports a year, so why would we need to do a parents' evening?" says Sir Kevin.
"If the parents want to come and see us, all they have to do is pick up the phone to arrange an appointment, if there is a problem we will deal with it there and then. Why wait until the end of the year?"
The teachers are also on performance-related pay.
Another innovation happened by accident. Because the new school found itself admitting pupils across the age range from day one, necessity meant that different age groups were forced to sit in the same forms. But Sir Kevin found that this had a positive impact on pupils, with the older children acting as role models and mentors to the younger ones.
As the new methods began to make their mark, other schools began to take note. In 1998 Thomas Telford became the first comprehensive school in the country where every single pupil achieved five or more GCSEs at grades A-C. And as the Blair academies programme started giving schools greater autonomy, Sir Kevin – who was knighted in 2001 – set up a successful commercial arm, selling online curriculums to other schools.
"We had over 1,000 schools using our curriculum," says Sir Kevin.
"Over a five-year period this generated £17 million, it gave us the financial capacity to look at what we could do to extend the Thomas Telford model."
The first step was to take on the T P Riley School in Bloxwich, near Walsall, in 2003, creating what is now the Walsall Academy.
"That went incredibly well, so next we did one in Sandwell, we created the Sandwell Academy in West Bromwich in 2006, which was opened by education minister Lord Adonis.
"The football club (West Bromwich Albion) was involved with that, along with HSBC."
The Black Country was an area familiar to Sir Kevin – he was born in Wednesbury, and educated at Wodensborough High School – but by this time he was also looking at how he could do more to improve life opportunities in his adopted home of Telford.
Back in 2003 Sir Kevin had been called in as a troubleshooter to save the failing Madeley Court School, this time with the support of the newly formed Telford & Wrekin Council. The school, which served some of the West Midlands' most deprived areas, was under threat from closure having been branded one of the worst in the country for its GCSE results.
There had been only 53 applicants for its 158 places, and the school had been unable to recruit a new headteacher. Vic Maher, who had been a deputy head at Thomas Telford, was appointed to take over, and Sir Kevin's wife Lady Maria as his deputy. The plan initially ran for three years and saw Madeley Court remain under local authority control.
"That was our biggest challenge, without a shadow of a doubt," says Sir Kevin.
"The children from Madeley, Brookside and Woodside needed a considerable amount of support, it was one of the most socially deprived areas of England.
"But they are very proud communities, and just the same as anywhere else, they want the best for their children."
In 2007 the partnership was made permanent, with the renamed Madeley Academy becoming part of Thomas Telford Federation. The school was rebuilt, and now under the headship of Lady Maria, it is a school transformed.
"We now have 700 applications for every 180 places a year," says Sir Kevin.
Lady Maria – who is keen to stress that Madeley Academy is very much her baby – says that the school offers more than 50 different extracurricular activities.
"We have 300-400 kids every night who stay for for an extra two hours, taking part in a range of activities – extra lessons, social clubs, sports, performing arts and computers," she says.
Sir Kevin adds: "If we kept it open until 10pm, they would be there until 10pm."
He says all the schools have their own distinct character, and each headteacher is given total autonomy over their schools. But there is one central philosophy which runs throughout: finding which areas each pupil is interested in, and giving them the opportunity to excel in that. Inspirational teachers are crucial to this: for example, former Nottingham Forest and Albion defender Des Lyttle is the school's head football coach, and one of his former pupils is Wolves teenage midfield maestro Morgan Gibbs-White.
"We have more than 20 professional footballers playing in the Premier League and Football League," he says.
"Numerous ex-students are now performing at the West End in London and on television."
Thomas Telford has its own hall of fame, a corridor dedicated to the successes of its former pupils, which Sir Kevin says plays a huge role in showing pupils what they can achieve, and well-known alumni regularly return to talk to youngsters.
"If somebody wants to be a medical practitioner, or a veterinarian, we will bring back one of our alumni to talk about it. We have got nearly 30 years' worth of alumni now," he says.
But while the Thomas Telford model has unquestionably worked for its pupils, it has not been without its critics. Veteran Labour politician Lord Hattersley, a long-time opponent of specialist schools, visited Thomas Telford in 2005. He wrote in The Guardian "On its own terms, Thomas Telford will go from strength to strength and will continue to distribute its welcome largesse. But it is hard to believe that it will contribute to a general improvement in education standards."
However, by this time, Lord Hattersley was, if not quite a lone voice, in a minority of Labour Party thinking. Tony Blair, who declared his mantra would be education, education and education, said: “The Thomas Telford School is one of the highest achieving and most innovative secondary schools in the country."
Sir Kevin argues that the Thomas Telford way has transformed educational opportunities for thousands of children, including many from disadvantaged backgrounds. And the announcement that the federation is to take on and expand the West Midlands UTC will be seen by many as a vindication of the Thomas Telford model.
"This school should have been built in Wolverhampton," he says. At time of its inception, the proposed city technology college was sponsored by Wolverhampton-based construction giant Tarmac which wanted to invest in its home town. But such was the opposition from Wolverhampton Council, that finding a suitable site proved impossible.
"In the end, it was agreed to build it here, with a condition that 40 per cent of our pupils should come from Wolverhampton.
"For nearly 30 years, we have been transporting kids from Wolverhampton. Now we will have a presence there, without the need for them to travel."
One thing is for sure, there is plenty more to come from Sir Kevin Satchwell. At 68, he brims with energy and excitement about his plans for the future. He talks about the possibility of adding three more primary schools to the federation, having taken on Redhill Academy in Telford last year. There are no plans for retirement.
"I love being here in this environment, to be able to work with these children," he says. "It's an incredible privilege."