EXCLUSIVE: Expectations for college high as new principal takes the helm at Thomas Clarkson

SHE replaced a woman head widely regarded as having halted the school’s slide into oblivion but who was still not considered good enough so the expectations surrounding Claire Claxton are immense.

Appointed last term, Claire, 52 is the fourth head of Thomas Clarkson Community College in recent years but is the first since it became an academy.

In short Cambridgeshire County Council no longer shares the strategic management of Thomas Clarkson, investing that responsibility to Brooke Weston, a small group of colleges and schools until now contained within the borders of Northamptonshire.

It is no understatement to say Claire takes the helm at a time of cataclysmic change for while many still recall it as The Queen’s School until it was re-branded, this is about evolutionary change of a far more radical and incisive nature.

Thomas Clarkson Academy re-opens this term following the Building Schools for the Future initiative which has poured �35million into a spectacular uplift.

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Physically it is unrecognisable and culturally it will be too- the Brooke Weston formula is in evidence in every nook, cranny and carpet thread of this impressive building.

So what brings a teacher turned RAF officer turned teacher again to what some might regard as the poisoned chalice of the education world? Need its history be recounted? Fresh Start, special measures, Ofsted inspecting with the regularity of a traffic warden patrolling a busy street and with an academic record that not only went through the floor but landed in a heap in the cellar.

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Of her decision to accept the challenge there is no doubt.

“It was very well thought through,” says Claire who came to spend the Easter weekend in Wisbech before even applying for the job. She was, at the time, vice principal of Carlton Academy, Nottingham, and had helped steer that school through to rude health: the thought of doing it as principal was compelling.

“It was in a similar situation once to Wisbech and I survived that journey.

“When I walked round Wisbech it was 6pm and as I crossed the market place I spotted plenty of charity shops and few people speaking English. But what struck me immediately was the community of people who live here.

“I spoke to people who said why can’t Thomas Clarkson have and be like other schools?”

Key to her role at Thomas Clarkson will be implementing much of the ethos of Brooke Weston that includes, surprisingly perhaps, insistence on a new uniform for every pupil and one that has been provided for them free of charge. That was part of the arrangement insisted upon by Brooke Weston, who had been approached by the Education Ministry to consider Wisbech. Thomas Clarkson governors and staff considered other sponsors under the academy proposals but settled on Brooke Weston as offering the best way forward.

Will it work?

“Well there were about 1,300 uniforms and the staff assures me there are only around 13 still to collect. I would say it has generated great excitement,” she says.

But she’s not expecting its implementation to be quite that easy and talks of a “honeymoon” period during the first couple of weeks.

“The question I suppose is how are all the staff at Thomas Clarkson going to deal with it?” she says, pointing out that the 6th form, whilst not expected to wear uniform, will nonetheless be asked to come to school “in business dress”.

But even that isn’t the key to whether the school can work for at the heart of the TC academy formula if you like is trust. Examples? Well ‘break out’ areas adjoining classrooms are one where unsupervised access is available to huge banks of computers.

Her goal is to “give young people responsibility- that is a fundamental part of an excellent school. But we’re not excellent yet. Trust is a precursor to becoming so.”

Claire, a former PE teacher has appointed another woman as her deputy, Charlotte Johnston from Grimsby and for good measure the academy’s finance chief Alison Baverstock is a woman too!

But there are plenty of men left in the 178 strong team she’s taking on- and she can’t wait to get stuck into a new academic year.

She has a strong CV embracing sport and youth achievement is a founder member of the Youth Sport Trust and with her husband –a former teacher turned inner city paramedic- she hopes to move soon to a new home in the district. Her own children might help with the move but she’s not banking too heavily on it- three are at college studying medicine and the fourth is a Marine.

She describes the job in hand as being “an enormous challenge but with so much potential” and is already devoting 10 hours and more a day to getting it right.

She’ll keep a PCSO in school as before (“of course why wouldn’t I?”), is delighted with Richard Morrison, the new chair of governors that came through Brooke Weston’s business links, and is grateful to support she’s been offered to help with teaching English to students who have arrived from other countries and now attend her school. At the last count 19 different languages are to be found within the Wisbech school so a scheme to encourage years 10s and 11s to become junior teachers of English as a foreign language is both innovative and probably necessary.

Oddly though Claire thinks the real challenge is outside of Thomas Clarkson Academy and the “PR wars” as she describes them will be fought in the feeder primary schools with which they are associated.

Get the school right and you get parents of primary school pupils wanting to get their kids into Thomas Clarkson.

That will certainly be a first.

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