VIDEO: Inside the new Chichester Free School
With a five-month countdown ticking down, the Duchess of Richmond paid a special visit to the new Chichester Free School to see its stunning progress.
The main conversion of the old 1870s convent and building of the new extension has now finished, and in September children studying in temporary sites will step foot into their unique and huge new school.
It will be an ‘all-through’ model, taking children from the start of primary age through to secondary school and into a brand new sixth-form.
September places are already oversubscribed, demonstrating the great need for a school without a catchment area, taking pupils from the Witterings, Bognor, Arundel and Littlehampton.
The 1,000 Free School pupils will be guided into the new school, in Hunston just south of the Whyke Roundabout, by interim principal Jenny Clough.
Along with Stephen King, chair of governors, they were among the five who first came up with the idea of bidding for the Government project around a kitchen table in 2011.
Stephen said: “I’ve always lived in Chichester and felt there’s been a gap between independent education and state education.
“We had a very good church school and a single sex school but not this, and there was a great need for primary places especially.”
Mrs Clough only took the reins when former principal Guy Martyn moved on in January.
She said: “Yes there's lot’s of pressure but it's very exciting to have been passed the ball at this stage and to steer us into this next chapter is a real privilege.
"It’s been busy and lots of hard work from lots of people.”
The Duchess of Richmond was making her second visit to the school and after a tour of the newly refurbished convent, she said: “It’s some extraordinary engineering to keep the character of the old building while providing a school for the 21st century.
“It’s going to be a great environment for young people to learn in.”
The large new building to the south-east will be the main entrance and secondary school, with a sports hall to its rear, with the primary school in the smaller new extension.
In the converted convent will be the new sixth form, eventually taking nearly 200 teenagers, with the first take up is already almost full.
The convent will also be home to an art studio, common rooms, study areas, library, learning support, music practice rooms, main admin offices and parent's entrance.
The overall project has seen a number of delays, with children taught in temporary sites in Vinnetrow Road since 2013.
Farrans, the builders, has been praised for ‘getting’ the importance of turning a 160-year-old convent, disused for decades, into a facility fit to educate the area’s youth and within a tight time frame, despite a number of challenges.
Swarms of wasps, bats and even an old graveyard (where all the remains had already been exhumed) were all discovered.
But the biggest challenge was securing the fragile old convent, having to expertly prop up the crumbling walls before inserting the steel structures.
Project manager Barry Brookhurst said: “We have up to 180 guys on site at any one time and many are learning traditional skills like cutting a timber roof that you don't get the chance often to learn
"It’s a unique build, I've driven past the convent for years and now it's something to can tell my grandkids I helped build this."
While other free schools around the country have failed to even get off the ground, Chichester's has already been rated 'Good' by Ofsted and now the big move into a permanent and grand new home is within sight, those who conceived it seven years ago say the principles laid down then will continue to guide it.
Mrs Clough added: "We want to be a really good school where we know our children, work with them as individuals to achieve their very best so they can be the best they can possibly be.
"That’s what it’s been at the beginning and that’s what it will continue to be."