Spaces that work

The Wolfson Foundation has updated its grants programme, making it easier to access funding for cutting-edge facilities, discovers Jane Hughes

With advances in science, design and technology moving at a rapid pace, it can be demoralising for teachers and pupils to be working with outdated equipment, in classrooms that were often built decades ago. Recognising this dilemma, the Wolfson Foundation – one of the UK’s largest grant-making charities – has simplified and revamped its £2.5million school grants programme to encourage more high-achieving state secondary schools to apply for funding to transform teaching environments.

‘We know that schools are pressed for cash, and we recognise that finding match funding is increasingly difficult for them,’ says the Wolfson Foundation’s chief executive Paul Ramsbottom. ‘That’s why we want to make our application process more accessible and straightforward.

‘We have also reframed our programme descriptions so that the focus is clearly on supporting excellence in parts of the secondary curriculum that require specialist laboratories and technical equipment. However fantastic the teaching, subjects such as science, computer science, DT, music, languages and performing arts need specialist kit to deliver a modern curriculum. We are committed to ensuring that more pupils have what they need to fulfil their future aspirations, and that teachers are enthused to deliver inspirational lessons.’

The Wolfson Foundation will be awarding grants of up to £50,000 for equipment and £100,000 for building projects to both schools and sixth-form colleges. The requirement for schools to have match funding in place has been dropped (though this is still preferable). Instead, the hope is that schools awarded grants will use it as leverage to gain additional funding. ‘Many fields – ranging from pharmacy to engineering – rely on a constant stream of confident, highly qualified people,’ says Paul Ramsbottom. ‘If we can’t inspire pupils at school, that stream of people won’t materialise. And this is seen within the teaching itself – it is becoming increasingly difficult to recruit physics teachers, for example.’

The most compelling proposals, he suggests, will consider how facilities will be used both during and outside of lessons, perhaps for after-school clubs. Individual schools might also explore how they could share learning resources with other schools – an idea that’s particularly suited to multi-academy trusts.  

Founded in 1955 by trustees Sir Isaac Wolfson and his wife and son (initially with assets from Great Universal Stores) the Wolfson Foundation funds projects nationwide. As well as its work with schools, the foundation awards grants in the fields of science and medicine, health and disability, and the arts and humanities.

How to apply

  • There is a two-stage application process. Schools are selected on the strength of their proposal, together with a combination of indicators (student progress, school context, evidence of good leadership, inspection reports) that demonstrate they are performing well but need help.
  • Stage one involves completing an online form. Schools that pass this stage have a high chance of getting funding. Stage two is an assessment by a peer review panel, advised by assessors who may also carry out school visits.
  • Application windows open twice a year. The next one runs from 1 December 2019 to 10 January 2020. For more information, go to wolfson.org.uk/funding/application-guidance/

Grants in action

£50,000 towards new science laboratories 

‘In 2017, the Omega multi-academy trust of five schools in Cheshire came up with a vision to redesign science facilities across our primary, secondary and sixth-form provision. The science labs at Great Sankey High School were 50 years old, with rigid linear benches that made it difficult for students to move around. Our plan was for a new science block, to include two post-16 laboratories for the adjacent Barrow Hall College Sixth Form College.

We had committed funding to the project, but with cuts to education we were struggling. We applied to the Wolfson Foundation and – after a rigorous0 vetting process, which included a school visit – they gave us £50,000 to help turn two existing labs into specialist sixth-form teaching spaces. The project cost £130,000 and was completed within the year. It has had a huge impact in a short space of time. The labs have a real “wow” factor, with curved workbenches to make it easier for students to move around and interact, which they love. We’ve also had an increased uptake on science courses, as students know the facilities are excellent and so will stay with us. The teachers are delighted, too, as they are able to do many more experiments and activities than they could in the old labs.’

Jon Wright, Omega CEO and head teacher, Great Sankey High School, Warrington, Cheshire 

£48,000 for music equipment

‘Birkenhead Sixth Form College has 1,460 students, but in 2016 we had only one applicant for A-level music. That led to us withdrawing the course and – combined with the then music teacher retiring – we decided to rethink what we could offer. We looked at introducing digital music courses, which would have broader demand and be more attuned to our students’ needs than traditional A-level music. However, the squeeze on spending meant we couldn’t afford to set up this kind of provision.

When we saw what the Wolfson Foundation was offering and realised this could be the catalyst to turn our ideas into reality, we applied for a grant of £48,000 for music technology equipment. The equipment would form the cornerstone of our plans to convert an old design and technology room into a high-quality sound (and soundproofed) teaching studio.

The application process was straightforward and the Wolfson Foundation was incredibly supportive. Having found a new music teacher with the background to be able to set up a digital course, we introduced a BTEC in digital music technology in September. This year, 25 students with a variety of music backgrounds enrolled! We’re really excited about the course and the progression routes it opens up for our students – from sound engineering to musical production, programming opportunities and supporting professions.

The skills our students are developing also means we’ve been able to support a college musical production (of Grease) for the first time in nine years. None of this would have been possible without the Wolfson Foundation – it was an absolute joy to work with them.’

Mike Kilbride, principal, Birkenhead Sixth Form College, Wirral, Merseyside

£50,000 for new laboratories

A £50,000 grant from the Wolfson Foundation allowed us to refurbish our previously outdated laboratories into 21st-century workspaces. The project – comprising three new laboratories and a technician prep room – was completed in November last year, and has transformed science teaching in our school, enabling us to provide students with a space where they can thrive. Being a technology college, we pride ourselves on the modernity of our facilities, and the new labs are a fantastic addition. The Wolfson Foundation is a key benefactor in our pupils’ future academic success.’

Keith Rendell, school business manager, The Corbet School, Baschurch, Shropshire

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