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Birth of a beacon: Thomas Telford School's controversial origins revealed

By Toby Neal | Telford | Education | Published:

To the Ofsted inspectors it is, in their words, "a remarkable school" and "a beacon of excellence" which offers "outstanding teaching."

The Thomas Telford School was born amid intense controversy in the 1990s

Yet as plans took shape back in January 1990 to create what is today the Thomas Telford School in Telford, it was seen as a cuckoo in the nest and there were determined efforts to kill it off at birth.

Coincidentally another quite separate project was simultaneously getting off the ground. On January 30 that year plans were announced to create a polytechnic in Shropshire, taking students from Britain and overseas.

With costs put at £20 million-plus, the governors of Wolverhampton Polytechnic, as it was then, had given the go ahead for the scheme which, it was said at the time, could see Telford becoming a site for higher education into the 21st century.

Things were not all plain sailing for that either as the dream evolved into reality, although the concerns which arose were not based on academic grounds or ideology, but came from residents in Priorslee worried about problems such as increased traffic.

It is today the Telford campus of the University of Wolverhampton.

Opposition

But back to the Thomas Telford School, as we know it today, which was born out of the plans by the Conservative Government of the 1980s to create what were known as city technology colleges.

First proposed in 1986, these were to be a new sort of school within the state system with the emphasis on science and technology, with control of their own budgets and admissions policy, and with partial funding from industry sponsors.

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The education committee of Shropshire County Council didn't like the idea at all, and had a generalised opposition to the creation of a Telford City Technology College.

The school regularly makes headlines for spectacular exam success, and founding head Kevin Satchwell was knighted in 2001

This was on a whole variety of grounds, although the specific vote on January 29, 1990, was related to worries about the catchment areas.

The committee's motion, carried on Labour and Lib Dem votes, said the proposed catchment areas were incongruous in view of Shropshire's established policy of allowing parents to state their own choice of school.

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The plan was for the college to draw its students from Telford and Wolverhampton.

A general objection was that the new college represented an assault on state schools, in that it would cream off the best pupils from surrounding schools – in other words, that in effect it marked a return to selective education.

Local opposition had no impact on the Government's plans and a Shropshire delegation a few weeks later led by Wrekin MP Bruce Grocott and comprising councillors, teachers, students, and even churches, told junior education minister Angela Rumbold that a Telford CTC would be a disaster for Shropshire and would drain resources from other schools.

Nevertheless education secretary John MacGregor gave the official go ahead on July 27, 1990. The new college, it was announced, would be called Thomas Telford School and would cost £10 million, funded mostly by the taxpayer but with a £1 million input from the Mercers Company educational trust, and a similar amount from the Wolverhampton-based Tarmac construction giant.

At the time of the go ahead not a brick had been laid on the site at Old Park.

Shropshire County Council was not finished and launched a last-ditch bid to see off the plans.

It went to court seeking leave for a judicial review of the Government's decision to give the college the go ahead.

Taking shape... Looking at a model of the new college are, from left, head Kevin Satchwell – later Sir Kevin – Jack Mawdsley, chairman of governors, and Mr Alan Brimer, project director.

However, three High Court judges, led by the Master of the Rolls Lord Donaldson, unanimously threw out the council's legal challenge, leaving the way clear for the college to open.

The first head was Kevin Satchwell, the head of Moseley Park School, Bilston, who took up his new appointment on January 1, 1991, and the new school took its first pupils in September of that year.

Out of these controversial beginnings has grown a school which has since been in the headlines for the right reasons. For instance, it was the first in England to top the GCSE league tables with 100 per cent of its year 11s achieving at least five A* to C grades.

The political climate changed to such an extent that Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair was to hold up the Thomas Telford School as a shining example of everything that is good about Britain's public services.

“The Thomas Telford School is one of the highest achieving and most innovative secondary schools in the country,” he declared.

And Kevin Satchwell was knighted under a Labour government in the Queen's Birthday Honours list of 2001.

Toby Neal

By Toby Neal
Feature Writer

A journalist in Shropshire for 40 years, mainly writes features and columns, especially about aspects of Shropshire history. Lives in Telford and is based at the Ketley headquarters.

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