DURING a career in education spanning more than 30 years, Phil Jones rose to being the respected headteacher of a secondary school.

So he cut an unlikely figure at the start of the school year, dressed in overalls painting the walls of the Stanway Federation Learning Centre.

Mr Jones and four other members of staff got stuck in to make the centre at the former Alderman Blaxill School, smarter.

They did not exactly have a colour scheme – colours were dictated by what paint they found in the shed – but that didn’t matter.

Mr Jones and his team were determined the site would rise phoenix-like from the ashes to be used for education and nothing was going to deter them.

Six months on and Mr Jones’s vision to use the site to enhance education provision in north Essex has become reality.

More than that, it may become a model which could be copied across the country.

The learning centre has two principle areas so far – the independent learning zone and the Learning base.

Nearly 100 pupils from seven secondary schools have so far used the independent learning zone. It is designed to assist youngsters who have been excluded from school or who need support in other ways.

Meanwhile, other programmes have been run in the learning base, including a challenge day and young apprentice competition.

Mr Jones said: “We are still in the embryonic stages. The message we want to give out is we are here and if schools have ideas or needs, wemight be able to help and support them.”

The site, in Paxman Avenue, Colchester, is large. Market Field School occupies part of it while its own school is rebuilt in Elmstead Market.

Other groups using it include the Essex Music School and the Children’s University.

In the evenings and at weekends, the site is used by a number of groups, ranging from the Colchester Organ Society to a Zumba class. It has even been the venue for an Indian wedding. Mr Jones could not be more pleased.

He added: “I see the learning centre as being at the heart of a family of schools and the community making the best use of resources and facilities.

“We want to meet the individual and different needs of primary, secondary and adult learners.”

One function of the independent learning zone is to take students who have been excluded from other schools.

Mr Jones said: “I did not want this to be just a place where young people come because they have been naughty.

“I want it to be a place where we can support young people.

“If they are here, it means they are continuing with the curriculum, still getting supervision and are in a safe place.”

The zone helps children with a variety of needs. One pupil had refused to go to school at all. He went to the independent learning zone, firstly for half an hour a day, and gradually built up his time there until he could be re-integrated.

Another pupil was there to complete their GCSE coursework, something they had found impossible with the other distractions of teenage life.

The zone is quiet, calm, structured.

Uniform must be worn and standards must be maintained.

The environment is supportive, not oppressive or draconian.

Mr Jones said: “We enable them to be successful, so when they go back into their school, they have every chance of success in a more demanding and challenging setting.”

After more than 30 years in education, Mr Jones knows only too well there are times when a pupil has to be removed from a situation for everyone’s sake.

But he wants to ensure they are in a better position when they return. The programmes currently run are just the start.

Mr Jones hopes the learning centre will be used for GCSE revision, either by individuals or groups. An IT suite is being created and it is hoped to expand provision to take primary school age children, too.

A common room is also being created with some help from volunteers from the University of Essex. It will be called the Blaxill Room, a nod to the history of the site.

Mr Jones said: “It has the potential to be a model for learning in the 21st century and I do think it could be repeated in other parts of the country.

The staff are working hard to make a real impact on enhancing learning in the area.

“There were two options when Alderman Blaxill School shut last summer. One was to board it up until it was needed again. The other was to use it.

“Credit should go to Essex County Council, which allowed the site to be used and also to the Stanway Federation Academy trust for being prepared to continue to manage the site and for turning the vision that it should continue to be used as a place for learning into reality.”