Olivia Boyd meets the headmaster of the Wren academy, the UK’s first school to specialise in the built environment.

A film crew is packing up to leave when I arrive at the former St Mary’s Church of England school in Finchley. It has been filming MI High, a sort of Spooks for kids. It is a surprising choice of set. The tired sixties blocks in north London have “bog standard comp” written all over them – more Grange Hill than MI5’s Thames House.

All this is about to change. In February, work will begin on a two-phase project that will transform the £23.4m Wren academy, one of the latest additions to the government’s academies programme and the first school in the country to specialise in design and technology and the built environment.

Newly appointed principal Michael Whitworth is visibly excited by the project. From a shabby office in one of the blocks marked for demolition, he paints me a vision of the “uniquely fantastic-looking” scheme, designed by Penoyre & Prasad. A large glass atrium will house a specialism block kitted out with state-of-the art IT facilities. Sculpture will be exhibited on a landscaped meadow and a biomass boiler fitted to boost the school’s eco-credentials – it is aiming for a BREEAM rating of “excellent”.

Whitworth’s enthusiasm is infectious. And from a construction point of view it is hard to see how the Wren academy could fail to improve the environment of the local community. What is more questionable is how such a specialist school will serve its pupils.

The principal admits there are potential problems with school specialisms, but insists they can be immensely beneficial if handled properly. “Being wary about a specialism is a very strong and useful position to take,” he says. “It will only work if it is not at the expense of other subjects. Once you become the maths school and all you are good at is maths, then you aren’t achieving what academies are meant to achieve.”

The built environment works particularly well as a topic, he says, because it is relevant to so many other subjects. He takes the example of history: “A much neglected part of the subject is local history, and by looking at the evolution of their community and its buildings young people can get engaged and excited by it. But what will benefit are their history skills. It’s about enhancing the curriculum, not dominating it.”

A longer-than-average school day will allow staff to work in the extra subject matter, while satisfying the requirements of the national curriculum.

Whitworth himself has no design background, but his CV shows that he is something of a turnaround specialist. By the time he had finished with his last school, Kelmscott in Walthamstow, east London, it was in the top 5% of most improved schools nationally and his leadership was described as “outstanding” by education minister Lord Adonis.

So what might he achieve with a brand new school? An army of QSs and engineers to plug the yawning skills gap? “I do see the school as a specific pool of talent for design and construction,” he says. “Obviously, there is a finite number of people a school of 1,100 pupils can expect to be providing, but I think a disproportionate number of our students will wish to enter those industries after their time here. I’m extremely confident we will provide them with a headstart.”

I do see the school as a specific pool of talent for design and construction. I think a disproportionate number of our students will wish to enter those industries

The school is also hoping to encourage more women into construction by opting for single-sex classes in selected subjects. Whitworth cites educational research that shows girls are more likely to choose science and technology in the sixth form if they have been educated separately from boys. Gender stereotyping is less likely to occur in a single-sex environment and staff can concentrate on boosting the skills more often associated with boys.

But Whitworth is not solely concerned about what Wren can do for the industry. He is also looking for design and construction professionals to come forward to help the school. He is seeking two types of contribution. The first is educational – talks, workshops, work experience and special development days each half term. The second, of course, is financial.

While the cash has been raised for the main building project and plans are almost final, Whitworth is hoping that companies will make donations for additional projects such as specific pieces of work to improve the school’s environmental credentials.

He thinks sponsors may be attracted by the timing of the project, which he hopes will make it an exemplar for Building Schools for the Future, the government’s school renewal programme.

There has been an “incredibly enthusiastic” response to Wren from the community, says Whitworth, and much talk of architectural and engineering skills among eager parents who no doubt see their child as the next Norman Foster. But Whitworth is keen to stress that Wren will not be an exclusive centre for the academically gifted. Fifty per cent of admissions will be from the Church of England (the sponsor is the London Diocesan Board) and 50% from the local community. The school will cater for the full range of abilities.

To date, more than 500 applications have been received for the 162 places available next September – a single year-seven cohort will be taken on while construction is continuing. Some have expressed concern that the first intake will be stuck on a building site. But Whitworth’s eyes light up when I mention this. He has plans to use the building work as a study tool for the children.

“We are already identifying with our designers aspects of the work that the children might be involved with. The decor, the external furnishings, the external layout and planting are all aspects where the pupils will be able not just to look and document but to make a genuine contribution.”

A bunch of 11 year olds running around a building site would obviously be a health and safety nightmare, so their input will be limited to the classroom, says Whitworth. But he is adamant that this will not detract from the excitement. “For the kids to be able to say they were part of shaping their school as it grew around them is a once in a lifetime opportunity – it is bound to be a real adventure.” An adventure, eh? MI High eat your heart out.

Whitworth’s lesson plans

The Wren academy headmaster suggests how lessons could involve the built environment – and Building hacks …

Maths After a site visit with colleagues from a civil engineering company, more able students in years 10 and 11 complete an assignment in which they must calculate and recommend angles of construction to support the roof of a new building

English A group of year 10 GCSE students research a contemporary construction project through our links with Cabe. They then practise their report writing, grammatical and oral skills in working with a journalist from, say, Building magazine to prepare a written and spoken critical presentation

Science With support from a building design consultancy, year seven students spend a day researching and reporting on the aspects required to create the best possible school working environment for young people

History A team of local architects work with teachers to devise an integrated local geography and history unit for year eight. The students investigate the evolution of the built environment in Barnet and assess its changing impact on the lives of local people.