Old school new ties

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For a man who’s had bleach thrown in his face in what may have been a grudge attack over the controversial merger of two historic independent schools, Jim Keefe looks remarkably composed.

He doesn’t want to comment on the attack last November which led police to question whether the motive lay in the merger of Arnold School, South Shore, and King Edward VII/Queen Mary School, Lytham.

“What’s past is past,” says Jim, now looking to the future as head teacher of what will become known next year as AKS, a snappier title than Arnold King Edward Queen Mary School.

“We are moving on,” adds Jim. “A school is not just a building. It’s the pupils, parents, staff. It’s a family. I want what is best for this family. If we hadn’t changed, we would have fought to sustain what we had, rather than build upon it. Now we can focus on providing the best, most rounded, education within the classrooms and outside for all our pupils.”

Jim is dividing his time between both sites until September 1913, when the new-look super independent will pull all pupils under one roof at the Lytham campus.

“They’re only four miles apart so it’s not difficult.” By then, the junior school should be open on the site of KEQM’s infant school. Other improvements are already being made.

Neighbours King Edward and Queen Mary merged in 1999. Arnold School rebranded from South Shore Collegiate to take the name of the original school on the site it acquired in 1896.

The new merger, under the wing of the United Church Schools Trust, establishes AKS as an independent on an equal footing with the bigger boys in the league. Locally it’s up against Rossall School in north Fylde and Kirkham Grammar in south Fylde. Jim knows Arnold and KEQM cherish their roots. At Lytham, that heritage is marked by an impressive wave sculpture marking the flood in 1719, which resulted in a relief fund which established the foundations, two centuries on, for both King Edward and Queen Mary. It features the motto sublimis ab unda, meaning raised from the wave.

“We’re building on that today,” says Jim. “Both schools have a strong heritage, strong values they hold dear. Those values are phenomenally compatible. By bringing together two fantastic schools which already have strong ties you combine those strengths, sustain the ethos and maximise potential.

“We’re working to create what will be a fantastic environment for children. I am proud of both but this site, relative to the Arnold site, had more space to develop.

“The Arnold site is compact, and that was one of the issues.

“I joined Arnold as deputy head in 2004. The economy was in a pretty vibrant place. The deterioration has been very rapid and very deep. I was appointed last August as headteacher designate. It’s been challenging but I’m focused on doing the right thing for the children of both schools. I have no regrets personally or professionally. This new school will allow me and my other colleagues to strive to improve the quality of our provision. The issue of declining numbers created challenges. Without such a change we’d have been looking at how to sustain what we could deliver.

“There’s a great deal of interest in the new school now, both in the long term and our proposed building programme. We are still operating in tight economic times, but working to develop systems which ensure children hit the ground running in September 2013. We’ll operate on both campuses before coming together. By then we should, hopefully, have the new junior school. Phase one, on now, is our new library, sixth form centre, new changing facilities, ICT suite, laboratory refurbishment and corridor allowing a more seamless flow through school.

“Phase two is the junior school, subject to planning, from summer through to summer 2013. From September 2013 to Easter 2014 we will build a new sports hall on the back of the existing sports facilities. We have to be calm, methodical and logical going forward. The pupils are enormously excited, too. We have an entirely new uniform, in keeping with the fresh start.”

Jim is from Bishop’s Stortford, the first of his family to go to university. He taught economics after qualifying.

He added: “I still feel passionately a head should be in a classroom, too. It is really important I stay in close contact with classrooms. I’ve only taught in independent schools. They have a sense of community which values people and helps children flourish.

“Young people are incredible, flexible, adaptable, phenomenally focused about what they want to achieve and how to go it.

“The challenge they face is the speed of change. The labour market was more settled in our day. Now it’s evolving so rapidly young people must be open minded about careers, the numbers of jobs they may have to undertake.

“We’re going to be at the cutting edge of all that. This merger places us there.”