Set the scene for the days ahead

If you haven't got the staff together early and started on your school plans, you could spend the rest of the session catching up, advises Sean McPartlin.

The start of the new session may be the first day back at school for pupils but it is something of a misnomer for teachers as most will have spent a significant amount of the previous week in school preparing for the year ahead. Experience tells us that if we don't get well ahead in August, we could well spend the better part of the year trying to catch up.

For management, planning meetings in August are a vital part of the job, as without them schools can be condemned to a session of reactive rather than proactive events.

Exam results have to be pored over, much in the manner of the ancient Romans with the entrails of animals, seeking indications of which way the academic wind is blowing. There may be staffing issues to be resolved, due to late promotions or retirements or plain scarcity of candidates. And, in the wake of the results, senior students may need to be re-coursed or supported in alternative applications for further or higher education, and the appeals process will need to snap in to gear.

The school calendar will already have been published for the year to come, but August is the time for fine tuning, and the same might apply to any changes in management or other remits. In these post-McCrone days, there may well be new posts that have to be assimilated into the school community, in terms of rooms and office space as much as in the hearts and minds of staff, and this calls for a clarity of communication so that everyone shares the same understanding and expectations of these posts.

Most staff would probably opt to remain in their departments during the first days of term, cloistered with class lists and resources, planning their lessons for the immediate future. While this is useful, management should be aware that the start of the session is a time when school targets can be set and staff can be encouraged, even, dare I say it, visions shared.

A school of my acquaintance has developed a tradition whereby the management team send out the agenda for the first day's meetings around the end of July, in a message that thanks staff for their work over the previous session, hopes the holiday is going well and lets teachers have an idea of what to expect on their return. There is an element of risk to this, as some staff prefer to have no reminders whatsoever about school during their summer break, whereas others value the advance warning of the shape of the in-service day.

Generally speaking, though, the format of the day is predictable. A welcome from the headteacher, usually with at least a passing reference to the trend of the exam results, is followed by an introduction to new staff and an explanation of any big staffing or building changes that have occurred over the holidays. Registers, class lists and resources have to be distributed and any timetable changes occasioned by re-coursing need to be communicated to all concerned.

Departmental time should be as generous as possible, but may well be cut across by meetings of guidance staff, personal and social education and religious and moral education teachers, register teachers and important school committees (particularly the staff social committee!).

The most vital of all the meetings that occur on these preparation days is the one for probationer teachers and those new to the school. Even for experienced professionals, getting used to the quirks and traditions of an organisation of perhaps 1,200 people can be an ordeal; for probationers it can be almost overwhelming.

So, when putting together an induction pack, or in the course of these introductory meetings, it is crucial that management pay attention to detail and ensure that their expectations of staff are clearly communicated.

This would cover school systems on attendance and punctuality, for staff as well as pupils, on health and safety, discipline and other school routines. A copy of school policies should figure somewhere among it, but disappointed will be the heidie who expects these all to be read and remembered in the first weeks of term.

One area that must be highlighted is child protection, with all its attendant guidelines and legal ramifications. This is an area that needs to be treated carefully and thoroughly, in the best interests of each child and teacher. Like the whole induction programme, it requires a balance between sufficient information to ensure the new teachers appreciate the relevance and importance of what they are being told and an overload of detail that leaves newcomers bemused and frightened of all that there is to absorb.

The first days back can be difficult; it is management's task to ensure it enlightens rather than befogs the staff!

Sean McPartlin is assistant head at St Margaret's Academy, Livingston

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