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Why a new school building is more than just bricks and mortar

July 26, 2021, 10:49 GMT+1
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  • Wayne Clayton discusses turning adversity into opportunity and using a new school building to create a community...
Why a new school building is more than just bricks and mortar

Springhead Park Primary School, a new free school located in Ebbsfleet Garden City and part of The Primary First Trust, opened its doors for the first time in September 2020.

Managing the construction of a new school and welcoming the first cohort of pupils can be challenging at the best of times, but Springhead Park undertook this during a pandemic, creating a whole new spectrum of uncertainty and challenge. Wayne Clayton, Headteacher of Springhead Park Primary School, discusses the unique situation they faced and how they turned adversity into opportunity, using the new school building to create a community.

Springhead Park Primary School is part of The Primary First Trust and was designed to serve the growing community of Ebbsfleet Garden City. There was such demand that within months of the school opening, our pupil numbers doubled, we employed a new teacher, and the nursery cohort is set to be a two-form entry from September 2021.

However, reaching this point has been a long journey. As we know, working to open a school that does not yet exist is a feat of its own and when the pandemic hit, we faced a series of new hurdles including building delays and, once our school was built, how we could create a school community when no one could enter the building. The key to our success was seeing opportunity in adversity.

Navigating the building process

To take you back to the beginning, we had a nail-biting few months during the summer of 2020 as the pandemic caused massive delays in the construction industry, meaning our school building would not be completed for the summer holidays. These delays meant we could not hold our transition event during July and even the ‘offsite’ events were cancelled as a result of restrictions. Transition events are a crucial part of any school’s calendar and for us, it would be the first time our pupils could familiarise themselves with the school building, meet their teacher and make friends ahead of September.

We were determined to find a way to hold the transition events as we knew how important they would be to help our pupils settle into school life. We had to be flexible and adapted our plans to hold our transition week in late August. While unconventional, we found this was very effective as our pupils were visiting the school and taking part in a range of activities just a week or so before they started term. This meant in September, pupils were very familiar with the environment and felt as if they had not been away. As a result, our pupils were calm and, to our delight, integrated into their learning with real ease.

Delays to the building also meant we needed a Plan B if the school was not ready for the start of term. We worked with the contractors to find a solution and agreed that we would be able to use at least half the building come September. This would be more than enough room for our first few year groups of pupils. Thankfully, the building was ready in time, and we were able to welcome pupils to the permanent environment for the start of the academic year.

We were very grateful for the skills and experiences of our Trust and leaders’ tenacity in getting the school building open to provide the best experiences for our pupils. This shared vision and access to expertise was invaluable throughout the process.

Creating our community

During the lead up to the school building being completed, we organised a series of events to give our prospective pupils and parents a sense of ownership over the building and begin integrating them into our school community. This was a key part of our vision for the school to act as a community hub, allowing people to share experiences and ultimately deliver the best outcomes for our pupils. This was also vital for the community itself as there were no other community facilities nearby such as a shop or town hall.

We invited prospective pupils and parents to a celebratory ‘lifting in’ ceremony to watch a crane lift the first pieces of the school building into place. This allowed them to witness the school building being created and made them a part of the school’s history.

We also organised for local artist, Xtina Lamb, to run a workshop with our prospective families to make the school’s hoarding more creative. Throughout the event, children created pieces of art with Xtina on the theme of Spring and these were displayed on the hoarding. This not only showcased the artistic talents of the children for whom the school was being built but also created a further sense of ownership and pride in the school building.

Benefits of our school building during the pandemic

Once we were given the keys to the building, due to Covid-19 restrictions, we, unfortunately, could not hold the large opening ceremony we had planned. However, once again, we found that this misfortune provided us with a new opportunity and way of doing things which ended up being of benefit to our pupils. Our learners were able to go straight into their introductory week and establish a normal routine, not overwhelmed or disturbed by any big events, which improved their transition into primary school.

Another benefit of our school building during the hardship of the pandemic was the space. With only a few classes in school and multiple classrooms and social spaces available, we were able to maximise our situation and follow the guidelines on social distancing and bubbling effectively and fairly easily.

Our pupils are also enjoying the many facilities that our new building offers, from state-of-the-art classrooms utilising modern technology, to our large school hall, innovative food tech and science area and our plethora of outdoor spaces. Being located in the Garden City development, our school building is also well-considered, comprising a modular building design with high energy efficiency, reflecting the community we are in.

Looking to the future

We have many exciting plans to further develop our school building and truly establish it as a place for the community. Thanks to a grant from the Ebbsfleet Development Corporation during the pandemic, we can fast-track our plans within the next year.

For example, we will be creating an allotment and orchard on site which will give pupils the chance to learn about and immerse themselves in the growing process and harvesting produce. We also have plans to establish a rewilded area to attract small reptiles and mammals, giving our pupils hands-on experience of nature. Longer-term, we also hope to create a forest and Forest School.

Another exciting project is to transform our outdoor buildings into a celebration of Springhead’s heritage. The area has an interesting history, especially related to the Neolithic era, with remains of a Roman temple and the Ebbsfleet Elephant nearby. This will bring the community and its heritage into the school and will be accessible to our pupils and community alike, giving our standard outdoor buildings a sense of purpose and place that can be enjoyed by all.

Our PTA, Friends of Springhead Park, is also starting to fundraise to enhance our building. They are planning to expand our Library provision and we are looking into how we can incorporate technology into reading at the school, helping to prepare our pupils for the modern world. I also have ambitions to extend our technology facilities to include robotics and green screens.

Ultimately, our school building is not simply bricks and mortar, it is there to enable and facilitate our pupils to access the curriculum in a modern world, giving them the skills needed to thrive in the twenty-first century, and to be a central place that offers a welcoming space to bring together our community.

Advice for opening a new school building

  • Be flexible: Being able to alter plans to suit any unforeseen situation is essential with any build
  • Be prepared: It always pays to have a plan A, B and C so that you are ready for any change in the timescale or issue that arises
  • Be ready to make quick, informed decisions: When building a new school, there are many elements to oversee. Have a clear vision so you can make necessary decisions quickly and appropriately
  • Build a strong trustworthy team: Surround yourself with a team who you can trust with making decisions in your absence, confide in and bounce ideas off. We are also fortunate to be part of The Primary First Trust and receive expert support and guidance
  • Focus on your initial impression: When opening a school that does not yet exist, you represent the school, so make time to interact with prospective parents and create positive first impressions

Wayne Clayton is headteacher of Springhead Park Primary School, part of The Primary First Trust.