The beautiful landscape of Salisbury Plain attracts tens of thousands of visitors a year being, as it is, the largest remaining area of chalk grassland in the UK and the site of more than 2,000 prehistoric sites including the world famous Stonehenge. However, it’s also home to the largest military training area on British soil, and that training area is about to get even bigger; which is one of the reasons why an infant school, two primaries and a secondary school have joined forces to become a multi-academy trust – part of the government’s rebasing plan for thousands of troops and their families to move onto the Plain by the end of 2019.
The unique partnership between Avon Valley College (AVC), formerly a Local Authority secondary school with sixth form, and three Church of England schools – Bulford St Leonard’s, St Michael’s and Durrington All Saints – is an integral part of the programme that will see thousands of troops and their families call Salisbury Plain home, and designed to help provide all the extra pupil places (1,200 across the four schools) which will be needed to accommodate them.
The Ministry of Defence (MOD) is investing around £1bn in the programme which will include 5 Rifles moving to Salisbury Plain this summer and 20 Armoured Infantry Brigade, currently based around Paderborn and Sennelager in Germany, moving back in 2019, swelling the area’s population by an additional 7,000.
Helen Mathieson is Salisbury Plain Academies’ chief executive officer. “Of the 1200 extra school places needed for 2019, we anticipate 400 of these will be for secondary school aged children,” she explains. “To put this into perspective, this is the largest rebasing of military personnel since World War II.” Such a massive migration is a mammoth endeavour. It has, for instance, taken nearly two years to get the schools to the stage where they could officially unite and become a trust. Unsurprisingly, there is much building work in the pipeline.
The new St Michael’s school is going to be relocated to the garrison at Larkhill. It will be a 420 place, two-form entry primary with a purpose-built 60 place nursery attached, and is due to be opened in 2018; a new building has just been opened at Bulford – close to another army camp – to answer the growing demand for places there, and building works are due to start at Avon Valley College very soon to accommodate the expected growth in numbers.
“But”, Mathieson points out, “this Trust is not just about providing those much-needed spaces; the schools will deliver all-through education which will allow shared skills and shared opportunities for professional development of staff and valuable experiences for children.”
All-through education is something about which Mathieson has long been passionate. “Transition moments are difficult times for children and they make them regularly throughout their school career,” she comments. “Coming together as a trust, working together, so that those transitions are smooth from 0 to 18, is going to benefit not just the young people in the schools and the staff working together, but also parents who can be confident about what is happening for their child and with whom.”
Mathieson has lots of experience when it comes to academies and all-through education – she was Marine Academy Plymouth’s first principal (formerly Tamarside Community College) and brought a primary free school (Marine Academy Primary) to its campus. Because these schools were also sponsored by Plymouth University she was able to offer all-through education, right up to and including university.
She has also served as chair for the Aspire Academy Trust in Cornwall – a large multi-academy trust which has nearly 20 primary schools under its wing.
“We have had lots to consider, pulling this together,” says Mathieson. “Communication with families in Germany has been equally as important as that within the schools’ own communities.”
Some considerations have proved singularly challenging. For instance, giving parents currently living overseas the necessary information to make a confident choice of school for their offspring has produced a range of logistical problems.
“We’ve had to think about details such as the weight of the paper when it comes to sending information leaflets out to Germany,” admits Mathieson. “And we’ve had to ensure that everything is available digitally – we’ve also been very active on Facebook and twitter. Engagement is the key.
“It’s hard enough for parents choosing a local school for their children; just imagine having to select one in a different country.”
Avon Valley College, like most secondary schools, sees its place at the heart of its community. All schools have something unique about them; at AVC, the school has, as you would expect, a higher than average number of children from military families – and that is set to increase.
Happily, the school’s staff are well practised in supporting the particular needs of such students and their families – and this expertise is seen by the school as a real strength.
“We are very experienced at supporting students from service families,” confirms Tim Webber, principal at Avon Valley College. “Pastoral care of all students is vitally important to us and we recognise that children of service families often need a particular kind of support due to their increased mobility, and the impact of parental deployment and training.
“A significant minority of our students come from service families and we employ many members of staff with similar backgrounds.
“Avon Valley College has been educating the children of service families for decades. Our experience enables us to quickly identify and provide additional support for service children when and where it is needed.”
Backing on to the River Avon, the school’s site is spacious and green, with large playing fields to the front, rear and side of the buildings.
In addition to the planned new builings, AVC already has a new sports hall, a fully-equipped fitness centre, two astro-turf sports courts, a dance studio with a sprung floor, tennis courts and a further gym.
These sporting facilities are complemented by suites of fully-equipped science classrooms, technology classrooms (two ICT classrooms, three further computer suites and tablets for individual student use in the classroom), two art rooms and a drama studio.
Nonetheless, everyone involved in its creation is absolutely clear that regardless of expected student numbers, schools’ facilities or the expertise available, this Trust has also been formed in a determined bid to improve educational standards.
Improvement for all
“I believe that the children and their futures come first, and that every child can be supported to find a route to success – whatever their background,” insists Mathieson. “Salisbury Plain Academies has been created to enable staff to work much more closely together: to learn, to train and to develop pedagogy in collaboration, in order to deliver the best education possible for our students.
“Professor Dylan William has said: ‘All teachers need to improve their practice – not because they are not good enough, but because they can be better,’ and in Salisbury Plain Academies every member of staff has responsibility for the success of every child and, working together, challenging ourselves and each other, there is a combined strength in what we do and how we do it.
“School improvement doesn’t just happen because of training days or because of a certain initiative, nor as a result of government changes, it happens because all of the people involved in the education of our children are fully involved, fully responsible and fully committed to improvement happening every, single day. These schools were not forced to academise as a result of external pressures, and the rebasing has been planned since 2013 – this has given time to draft and redraft the vision and the philosophy which will be at the centre of all that we do.”
“The very forefront of that drive for improved educational standards is the determination to work together in partnership to enable Salisbury Plain Academies to offer the very best educational experience to all of the children in their communities,” she concludes.
Mathieson has high expectations for the future and hopes that, in Salisbury Plain Academies, the team is building something which, while it may not last quite as long as Stonehenge, may prove to be equally conspicuous by its excellence.
For she believes the new MAT is germinating something special. “It has the potential to become a hub of excellence, a reflective leader of learning, a provider of all-through education which enables children and young people to develop their skills and potential, “ she says, adding, “We are not working in isolation, we have a very close partnership with the Army, the Diocese and Wiltshire County Council. All of us are working towards making that rebasing by 2019 seamless, and creating something of which the whole community can be truly proud.”