Setting up a school from scratch means new thinking and fresh challenges – even if you are already leading an outstanding blueprint, explains Dr Josephine Valentine
In January 2015, I found myself sitting in a room in Whitehall, a 132-page Free School application in front of me, preparing to face a Department for Education panel. Although the overriding feeling was one of excitement, I can’t deny that a part of me was thinking ‘What on earth am I doing?’ With my small but exceptional team beside me I listened, expecting and prepared for a grilling on the minutiae of the application. It soon became clear, however, that our plans had impressed them; they were extremely complimentary about our learner-centred model, which took St Clement Danes (the Hertfordshire school where I am the headteacher) as a blueprint, but adapted and honed our successful structures to suit the needs of a different student profile. In March, we heard that the application had been approved and, for the past nine months, we have been preparing to open a high quality, all-ability secondary school, five miles away from us across the M25 in Croxley Green.
I was first approached by Hertfordshire County Council in November 2013. The demographic projections for 2016 and beyond were showing an increasing shortfall in school places in South West Hertfordshire, growing to a deficit of over 19 forms of entry by 2022. St Clement Danes, awarded Outstanding in all categories at its last inspection, has a superb reputation locally, which Hertfordshire knew would be a huge selling point for a new school. Its results are phenomenal: in 2015, 16% of our grades at A Level were A* and 68% A*-B, with progress from GCSE for that cohort likely to put us in the top 20 of all schools in the country. But our record of staff development and school to school support was also a key factor. I have been a National Leader in Education since 2008, when our school also became a National Support School. In March 2013 we became the lead school for the Herts & Bucks Teaching School Alliance and, in 2014, the lead school in the St Clement Danes hub for Challenge Partners, a national organisation providing school to school support. Hertfordshire felt that if any school knew how to plan, open and lead a new school, it was us. My first reaction to Hertfordshire’s request was not fear or doubt but a genuine thrill that we had been given this huge privilege and excitement at the journey ahead.
Timings and trust
An early challenge was the DfE’s decision to grant our application, but only on the condition that we deferred opening until 2017. This gave us breathing space but also our first headache. The parents in South West Hertfordshire had given us fantastic support for the new school.
In our public meetings, parents were clear that they wanted another St Clement Danes for Croxley. They realised that we would be opening a first-rate school for local children in an area where a partially selective system gives many places to children who commute from some distance. Many of our staunchest parent supporters were about to be told that the school would not now be open in time for their children. When the successful application was announced, the excitement was tinged with regret for those parents who would no longer benefit. Attempts to mitigate the impact were made, with an application to change our own admissions criteria for 2016 to help the area concerned, but these were turned down. Building up trust again in the parent cohort for 2017 opening was vital.
Another challenge has been developing a new school for a site which Hertfordshire County Council is procuring and the Education Funding Agency (EFA) will build upon.
Although our name is rightly at the centre of the new school in the public’s mind, we have precious little control about significant factors such as the timing of the purchase, the planning implications for the local area and the location of the site. We spend a lot of time on the phone to members of the public explaining our lack of influence over any of these decisions and it is sometimes hard not to sound evasive.
The challenges of setting up any new school are great, but, as the Headteacher of an oversubscribed school with a fantastic reputation, I knew I would encounter concern amongst some governors and parents that my decision might put St Clement Danes under threat. Staff, however, were relatively easy to win over. My colleagues at the school are an extraordinarily talented and committed team who, like me, could see the benefits. The Teaching School was already bringing many opportunities for staff CPD but they recognised that the new school would open up career pathways and the chance to be involved in building a new educational environment. With the growing teacher shortage, I was particularly mindful of how attractive the two schools together would be in terms of recruitment. Both are near the M25 and rail links into London, but situated close to beautiful countryside on the edge of the Chilterns. For teachers looking for their first school, or one in which to grow their careers, a two-school setting which also provides the first-rate training of a Teaching School has to be one of the most exciting prospects in the South East of England. With this message, I have sought to win over those governors and parents who were initially sceptical about our decision, reassuring them that standards at St Clement Danes are, if anything, likely to improve still further as a result of the expansion in our focus. As an example, in using our school as a blueprint, we have re-evaluated every area of our provision before replicating it in the new school. This has led to improvements in areas we would have considered ‘good enough’ otherwise, a positive spin-off which I had not anticipated sitting in Whitehall back in January.
But the biggest and potentially most rewarding challenge is turning the new school into, not a clone of St Clement Danes, but one which shares its ethos and replicates its phenomenal results. Our school is a special place. Founded in 1862, it originally opened as a boys’ grammar school in London. Each year, we hold a Commemoration Service at St Clement Danes Church on The Strand with one of our school orchestras accompanying the entire Year 7 who provide the choir. It is stirring stuff. A few weeks later, another of the school’s more recent traditions unfolds: the annual staff flash mob, last year seeing one of my Deputies performing ballet on canteen tables to ‘Let it Go’. From the traditional to the zany, it is building new traditions like these in a different setting which excites me greatly. Yes, we will put in place the structures and systems that we know work and produce fantastic results. But working with the local community to create a school with its own traditions and customs, its own sense of fun, its own can-do, progressive ethos and students who are proud to be a part of it – that is a challenge that really thrills me.
Opening a new school is hard. And that’s how it should be. It is a serious responsibility to open a new school that will be a permanent feature of the community for generations to come. It is a job which requires a love of change. It requires you build capacity to ensure that when fantastic members of the Senior Team start to work on plans for the new school, their other roles are seamlessly filled. It is a job with which you have to be fully engaged, and you have to have high expectations, both for your current school and the new one. St Clement Danes students will tell you that, at every opportunity, I say we are ‘probably the best school in the world.’ My biggest challenge, but also the greatest privilege, is to create one of the two best schools in the world in Croxley Green.
About the author
Dr Josephine Valentine is headteacher at St Clement Danes School in Chorleywood, Hertfordshire
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