A HEAD teacher whose pupils will spend two years in temporary classrooms says the school has opted for substance over style.
Harris Invictus Academy opened last month in grey portable cabins, of the style you might expect to find on a building site rather than a secondary school.
In fact, the school, on the former grounds of Croydon General Hospital in London Road, will be surrounded by a building site until its permanent home is finished in 2016.
Wooden hoardings currently separate the construction area from the school's small, tarmaced playground which merges with a staff car park where vehicles are parked like Tetris blocks to give the 160 Year 7 pupils as much space as possible.
The school does not have a kitchen so meals are bussed in by a catering company working with Harris Academy Purley.
The largest room on the site doubles both as the school hall and a seventh classroom.
When it is time for a PE lesson, pupils collect equipment from a container crate and are then taken to another school by minibus.
Principal Edward Evans says Invictus may look unorthodox but the students will benefit because money has been spent elsewhere.
"The children's experience is of being inside the classrooms learning rather than being outside looking at the aesthetics of the buildings," he told the Advertiser during a visit last Friday.
"I can only speak for the parents we have and, you are right, there were some concerns about the building.
"I reassured them and the feeling I have got is they understand the potential disadvantage of having a school next to a building site is outweighed by the fact it is in their local community."
Carol-Anne Alcock, executive principal at Invictus, said a deliberate decision was made to go for the "standard" temporary classrooms, the same used at Purley, where she is the head teacher, so more could be spent on resources.
"You obviously have a certain amount of money and the decision was made to put it into the infrastructure," she said.
"We put the finance we had into what's inside the classrooms. All the children have laptops and the staff have interactive whiteboards.
"Our IT is extremely whizzy; the children can log on in 40 seconds. To us that is really important.
"The children have access to a huge amount of resources and, for the first few years at least, they can flourish and express themselves in a way they would find it harder to do in a larger school."
The site, which has its entrance on Lennard rather than London Road, is currently designed for 180 students and, next year, will be expanded to take that number again.
Architects are currently putting the finishing touches to the design for the permanent building which is due to open the following September.
"The aesthetics of the building are important but what is key is that this is a temporary situation," said Mrs Alcock.
"We had 157 applications this year and we didn't even have a building. Now we have a building, will it put people off? It will be really interesting when we get those figures in March."
Relying on temporary buildings did have one unwanted side effect. When they did not arrive on time the school opened late, meaning the children missed three days of learning. Mr Evans said the time will be clawed back from staff training days later in the year.
The couple of days extra wait is unlikely to have worried the group of parents who first applied to the Department of Education (DfE) to open Invictus in 2011.
That bid was turned down so they sought the help of the Harris Federation, which has nine schools in Croydon, and Mrs Alcock, who re-wrote the application.
The revised plan retained the name, the purple uniforms and the focus on business. Up until Year 9 every pupil will be taught enterprise lessons and will be encouraged to take up business or economics at GCSE.
The aim is for every child to leave Invictus with the skills they need to set up their own business as well as compete in the job market.
The school's catchment area focuses on four points around West Croydon, Norbury, Selhurst and Thornton Heath – an area Mrs Alcock says Harris were keen to open a school in.
"The decider was that all Harris schools are so heavily oversubscribed," she explained.
"At Purley we had 2,100 visitors at our opening evening and around 800 applications for 180 places. Where were those parents going if they want their child to go to a Harris?
"The common ground among our first group of pupils is that they had two or three other Harris academies on their list. They were after Harris but they were too far away from Crystal Palace and from Purley."
The signs are Invictus's building issues have not deterred interest, with 850 parents attending a recent open evening. Mr Evans says the school will be ready to meet their expectations. "The goal in the first year is to create the best possible educational environment we can," he said.
"I don't mean a building. I'm talking about the circumstances which allow for children to do well, such as fantastic teaching and great attendance. We also want to make sure we have a full cohort next year and, beyond that, we look to the future and becoming an outstanding school."
'I thought we'd have lessons in tents'
HARRIS Invictus Academy's first pupils told the Advertiser they have been pleasantly surprised by the school since they started in September.
The Year 7 pupils we spoke to all had preconceptions about what temporary classrooms would be like (even though none had been taught in them before) with descriptions ranging from "cramped" to "squished".
"When they said temporary classrooms I expected to be taught in tents," said Samuela Arhin, 12. "Actually they're quite nice."
Cole Reid-Holden, 11, said: "I wasn't expecting the facilities to be as good as this. I thought it would be a one-deck cabin with three classrooms and 60 children.
"I was worried because I thought there wouldn't be enough space for us to play, but the playground is good."
Ben Wilcock, 11, said: "I thought there would be a couple of classrooms and everyone would be squished inside. Then I realised it was just Year 7 so we wouldn't be getting barged around on our way to lessons."
The group we spoke to liked the playground, which circles one of the large buildings and includes a ping pong table and a basketball net. They also appreciated being the only pupils at the school.
Parents wanted a boys school
SOME of the parents behind Invictus wanted the business-focused academy to be a boys school.
The group thought the school would help address gender imbalance in education attainment, particularly among white working class and black pupils.
"We believe it is time to take our son's futures back," said a blog by Dr Dola Imona, one of the parents, in 2011.
Ewemade Orobator, who is on the board of governors at Invictus, said he was not disappointed, however, that the school ended up being co-educational.
He told the Advertiser: "It was never about who ran the school or which pupils went there.
"Ultimately it's about the standard of education it offers, which will help address the imbalance even if there are both girls and boys in the school."