The merging of two schools on to one site in Whitehaven is the biggest single nuclear investment in a socio-economic project in Cumbria. Bridget Dempsey visits

In summer 2015, a £30 million plus funding package was announced for a new education campus in Whitehaven, bringing together St Benedict’s and Mayfield schools onto one site, as well as new community and sport facilities.

The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) and Sellafield provided £25.1 million of funding, making the project their largest single socio-economic investment. This was aided by match funding from other partners including Copeland Community Fund and the-then Cumbria County Council, who invested an additional £7.9 million.

“Some doubted we would be able to achieve it,” says Jamie Reed, Director of Socio-Economics, NDA. “But the project was more than simply rebuilding two schools. It was an investment in the community, its people and its future in an area – education – that will be fundamental to the future economic success of that community. The project was co-created with local stakeholders and this is what our socio-economic work is about, working with local stakeholders to address economic and social priorities. This is something that remains true today. In West Cumbria alone, working with and through Sellafield Ltd the NDA has invested approximately £50m in recent years, leveraging significantly more millions from other funding partners in the process. Moving forward, we continue to work with Cumberland Council to establish ladders of opportunity for those currently unable to access the nuclear sector, and provide economic growth in Cumberland.

“Our investment in education establishes ladders of opportunities for so many. We believe our work should be a springboard, benefitting the local communities and leaving a positive lasting legacy once our work is ultimately completed - Campus Whitehaven is one of the strongest living and breathing examples of that legacy.”

Going back a decade, schools in north Copeland had been identified as being in a state of disrepair, and educational attainment levels inconsistent. Additionally, a potential skills shortage was forecast across all levels and industries in the west Cumbria area. Those involved in the project saw that something had to be done in order to help bridge this gap, investing in developing the higher-level skills and knowledge required to support Sellafield in its decommissioning mission, while also allowing young people to raise their educational attainment levels to open up wider career opportunities.

The partners for the project agreed the investment would radically improve the teaching and learning environment, creating the potential for boosting pupils’ aspirations and attainment. It would also aim to improve the whole community’s health and wellbeing, as well as education, with the inclusion of state-of-the-art sports facilities like a 4G astroturf pitch, recreational spaces and a hydrotherapy pool.

In May 2017, work officially began on the campus through main contractor Wates Construction, as the foundations were laid to make way for the buildings 700-tonne steel frame.

“It was a hugely significant moment. Wates had worked with parents, pupils and the wider community on the design and layout of both the schools and the community facilities, so we’d truly developed a comprehensive understanding of the hopes and aspirations people had for the campus,” says Jamie. “What was most important was the fact that the ground-breaking event to mark the start of construction was attended by student representatives from both schools, reminding us why we sought to bring this project to life in the first place.”

Work continued for the next 18 months. The 14-hectare site became a hive of activity with landscapers, joiners, decorators, dry liners, and civil engineers. Throughout the construction, there were 13 NVQ starters taken on through various subcontractors, with Wates also running their ‘Building Futures’ course locally, a two-week pre-employment training programme aimed at long-term, unemployed people. Thirteen people, primarily from the Whitehaven area, attended. As a result of the campus construction, 14 new jobs were created directly employed by Wates, plus two graduate trainee roles.

In January 2019, the doors opened. Carolyn Westnedge, assistant headteacher at Mayfield School, called moving in a ‘dream to reality’ with the new building providing a ‘more secure, calmer and enhance learning environment’. The campus shortly afterwards received the ‘royal seal of approval’, when HRH Princess Anne officially opened the campus in July 2019.

However, after only 12 months of being open, the campus suffered as a result of the pandemic. Thorough risk assessments were put in place, class bubbles were introduced in Mayfield, digital and hybrid learning became the norm in St Benedict’s and community bookings were adjusted so that any use followed government guidance. However, the size of the facility allowed for a more disciplined setting, with one-way systems for students being more accessible, larger learning spaces allowing for social distancing, and a wider investment in digital assets and IT made hybrid learning more manageable.

Five years on, the campus is now a well-known feature of the community. Pupil numbers at both schools have increased; St Benedict’s currently has around 1,100 students and Mayfield currently has more than 230. A second site for 15-19 Mayfield students has recently been acquired in Cockermouth. Community usage has also increased year on year, with approximately £10,000 of income generated a month from bookings. This increases as the campus continues to attract new users, with the revenue going back into both schools. The facilities remain popular, with the 4G pitch, hydrotherapy pool and sports pitches the most used.

Scott Benbow, Head Coach of the Football Fun Factory, which run classes for 5-12 year olds at the campus, said: “The campus is a fantastic facility to run our classes. It provides an accessible, open, and safe environment for us to thrive in and has allowed the children from all backgrounds to develop in.”

Gary McKeating, Head of Development and Community at Sellafield Ltd, added: “The Campus Whitehaven project is a great example of our Social Impact approach in action, it is a genuine community asset which is already improving lives in the local area. The investments from Sellafield Ltd and the NDA created an educational facility to ensure that more of our young people benefit from the opportunities in the nuclear industry and beyond for years to come. In addition, it also provided much needed new community sports provision as well as a range of facilities for children with special educational needs.”