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Is it Possible for a School to Become Five Times Bigger Within a Year?

February 13, 2018, 10:16 GMT+1
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  • Headteacher Nicky Phillips explains what’s involved in overseeing the expansion of a school from 75 pupils to 420 the following year...
Is it Possible for a School to Become Five Times Bigger Within a Year?

I was appointed as Principal of St Michael’s C of E Primary School in Figheldean, Wiltshire in January 2017. We’re a small village school with 75 on roll, housed in an old Victorian building with mobile buildings serving as our classrooms.

We have three mixed-age classes – Y1/ Y2, Y3/Y4 and Y5/Y6, plus a small Reception class. 61% of our intake are from military families, so there are many pupil entries and departures throughout year as families are posted in and out. I arrived after a fairly turbulent time for the school, during which we had several headteachers. I took over from an interim head, with various systems and processes yet to be fully formed, so there was lots of work to do.

In addition to that, 75% of the school’s staff had begun the September before I started, including a number of inexperienced NQTs. This, combined with the new curriculum’s emphasis on mastery, meant that I was soon spending considerable time looking at our teaching and learning to ensure we had a consistency of approach across the school.

That ‘Family feel’

This coming year we’ll be undergoing some major changes, boosting our intake from 75 to 420 in 2018-19, adding a 60-place nursery and moving that to a new site approximately two miles away.

The expansion plans were already in place when I was appointed – it was actually one of the main reasons I wanted to take on the role – since they coincide with a major rebasing of army personnel currently stationed in Germany.

My background is working within larger schools, from which I’ve learnt that it’s entirely possible to maintain that ‘family feel’ in a larger setting.

I’m aware that some people may have chosen to send their children to St Michael’s specifically because it’s very small; but you can still develop a sense of community in a larger school by regularly coming together and organising cross-phase activities.

Even with larger pupil numbers there’s lots you can do to ensure that children see siblings regularly, that playtimes aren’t split, and that different classes and year groups have opportunities to mix.

People here have tended to see our school as very quaint, but if you consider the impact of our current facilities on the children’s learning, it’s quite limiting. Our classrooms are fairly old, our technology isn’t great and the playground’s quite small, to the extent that we have to make trips to the village hall and use their grass for PE lessons.

It was important to me to get the school as I wanted it before we grew – to ensure that the team was tight and working consistently, and that we had a strong ethos. Given how much we were about to expand by and how quickly, I needed a core of ‘champions’ who could model the school’s consistencies, systems and expectations to the rest of the staff and the new teachers we are about to appoint .

Out of our hands

The plans for our new building were largely agreed before I started, though I have had a say in some of the less substantial aspects, like the colour of the carpets and walls.

That said, since visiting the new site – and having also been to Germany to meet with some of the families coming over as part of the rebasing – it’s become clear that there’ll be a range of pupil needs that we’re going to have to start catering for.

The new school building will therefore now include a nurture room that wasn’t originally planned for.

Another exciting addition is the new online technology we’ll be using, which is very different to what we’ve worked with up to now. We’ve recently transitioned to using cloud-based systems, so we’re no longer required to have on-site servers.

That’s also given us the chance to get our essential systems up and running and bedded in before moving to the new building, after which we can pick up where we left off.

Our devices will all be connected wirelessly, presenting fantastic opportunities for our children to take advantage of new technologies, which is something they’ve previously barely had.

St Michael’s became a founding member of an academy trust in July 2016, with a governing body that has always worked closely with the school and been very much involved with the expansion process.

Because we’re currently so small, communication between our governing body, senior staff and teachers has been quite straightforward.

Having now done a great deal of work developing the school’s teaching and learning, vision and future direction, I’m confident that our staff demonstrate a clear understanding of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.

I’ve been very fortunate in that our existing staff have been on board since the start, and are excited about the forthcoming changes.

On the recruitment side of things, however, we do have challenges in that we’re presently a small school with a tight budget (along with many others, of course). Additionally, due to the nature of the rebasing, we don’t know how quickly our newly created places will fill up, which is a concern.

How many teachers should we appoint, when we don’t yet know how many children are going to be at the school in September? It’s unfortunately out of our hands, and the numbers will be entirely dependent on the army’s rebasing progress.

What I can do, however, is make sure we have a tight team in place, supported by systems that can grow and scale in line with the school’s larger size. We can make sure there are clear and consistent expectations, and that the teaching and learning is absolutely effective.

Mutual positivity

One of he biggest challenges we’ve had is managing the concerns some parents have expressed regarding the move, including some who are concerned about losing the ‘village feel’ of the school and want to move their children elsewhere.

Parents need to be made aware of how our new school and larger numbers will actually offer a greater variety of opportunities for their children. After all, the more teachers you have with different interests, the more things you’re able to offer during our wonderful enrichment afternoons.

So far, we’ve invited parents to open sessions and are currently in the process of writing a new prospectus that conveys the fabulous additions the new site has to offer.

We’ve planned a mile run around the perimeter of the new site, and there’ll be multiple playgrounds, grass pitches, outdoor learning areas – none of which we currently have.

Our parents have been very honest with us, and a couple have confirmed that they’ll be moving, but on the whole, we’ve received positive comments expressing excitement at the potential the new school offers.

Ultimately, if you yourself can be enthusiastic about big changes like the one we’re going through, that positivity and excitement can become infectious.

Nicky Phillips is the Principal of St Michael’s C of E Primary School