Leading a school is one thing. And leading a school that doesn't even exist yet is quite another. Wendy Wallace talks to the pioneers who will run the last new schools of this millennium and the first ones of the next.
Rosslyn J Hudson, headteacher, is in her office. But there is no murmur of children'sJvoices from the corridor outside. No shrilling of bells or smell of pizza. Just a red sweater on a hanger on the coatstand, a drawing of a fountain tacked to the noticeboard and the sound of Hudson's confident voice answering "Alexandra Park School" when the phone rings.
Hudson, like a handful of others around the country, is in the interesting position of being head of a school without pupils, leading a team not yet in post, from a school not yet fully built. She is working with a skeleton staff from the living room of a disused caretaker's house and expects to spend much of the summer on site. And that's literally on site.
All of which is precisely what tempted her, after 10 years of deputy headship at a Camden secondary school, to apply for the headship of this about-to-be-born 11-16 comprehensive in the London borough of Haringey. "I didn't just want to be a headteacher," she says. "What attracted me was the clean slate, the no-baggage, the opportunity to create things as you'd always wanted them to be - not to have to make compromises at every turn of the road. It's a huge opportunity to set up a school with the kind of vision I wanted."
That vision will be realised when Alexandra Park opens its gates in September to the first 162 Year 7 pupils. And until then, the avenue of newly-planted hornbeams behind the new gates will continue to be watered on a rota by the governors.
Alexandra Park is the result of a shortage of secondary places in the borough and of energetic campaigning by parents. It will use refurbished buildings and newly landscaped grounds previously belonging to an FE college, and stands on the site of the previous Alexandra Park School which closed in 1983 following an amalgamation.
Nationally the Government is putting over pound;5billion into school buildings over the next three years, to pay not just for the backlog of repairs but also for new schools. Some, like Walton High in Milton Keynes, are being built from scratch.
Roy Blatchford was appointed head of the planned 11-18 comprehensive last June and took up his post in January this year. After four years as director of the Reading Is Fundamental scheme, he was ready to come back and build on a previous 10-year headship in Oxfordshire. He compares Milton Keynes to Chicago. "I think it's a very energising city. Almost like a slice of America."
For now, Blatchford conducts interviews with new parents at his temporary office at nearby de Montfort University. He has little to show them but a folder of multi-coloured sheets - and himself. Luckily he is a persuasive talker, able to conjure up a vision of a solid school as he talks animatedly about the plans. Details range from how books will be displayed in the library to the fact that the extensive cycle racks will be covered by CCTV and that he intends the school to be a centre for lifelong learning.
Half a mile away the bulldozers churn around the emerging structure of Walton High, for which initial costs are pound;10 million. Blatchford says the nine-month gestation between taking up the headship and the school opening is about right. "It allows you to make some decisions and change them - reflect on them."
With the building scheduled for completion in mid-August, he anticipates "a manic three weeks installing everything from toilet rolls to IT" before the first 120 pupils arrive on September 13.
As befits a school opening on the cusp of the millennium, Walton High aim to be forward-looking. Pupils are strongly urged to walk or cycle to school - governors initially didn't want any form of car park, although a modest one has now been conceded. A cybercafe will be open from early in the morning. Blatchford refers unselfconsciously to Walton High as a "learning centre", and the omission of the word "school" from the name is intentional.
He is looking, he says, for a "golden bridge" between traditional and 21st century education and is trying to "synthesise the safe and the pragmatic and be distinctive and pioneering". He believes that if he offers familiar aspects close to parents' hearts - notably discipline, uniform and homework - he will have licence to do other things differently.
Areas to watch at Walton High will be community education, greater recognition of children's learning outside school and family-friendly working policies for staff. "I want to keep my fingers in the national pie," says Blatchford, "and help shape education in the next century."
It is certainly true that the visibility of new schools can offer the chance to make an impact nationally, but at the same time heads of new schools are often drawn closer to the families they will serve locally. Most want to build in some parent and pupil power to the decision-making process.
The business of recruiting pupils to a non-existent school with no reputation is delicate and rests more than usual on the impression made by the headteacher. Pam Bowmaker is well aware of this. She is the recently appointed head of The Charter School in Southwark which will open in September 2000 on the revamped site of a failing boys' school, set to close this summer.
Bowmaker says she was "overwhelmed" by the generosity of the outgoing head, who showed her round the site after her appointment. She leaves Varndean School in Brighton where as headteacher she was awarded the OBE for services to education. Now she relishes the challenge ahead of her. "I needed a change. My school had been incredibly successful and I didn't think I could take it any further. It's so exciting to start with a clean sheet of paper."
But with single sex and private schools operating in the area, she knows she must lay to rest the ghost of Dulwich High School for Boys if the new school is to attract a mix of children. The pound;4.5 million that Southwark has allocated should transform the school accommodation, but until then she would prefer to keep it under wraps. "I'm opposed to parents going to the site until there's something to see," she says. "On a darkish autumn evening, the initial impact could be that nothing much had changed."
Although Bowmaker doesn't take up her new post until September, events at the virtual school are moving "dramatically fast", she says. "I'm lucky to have a year. There are certain absolutely key things that have to be in place by this autumn - the aims of the school, curriculum, structure of the day. That's what parents are going to want to know."
There's also the tricky business of getting your hands on the helm. "There is a very enthusiastic temporary body of governors, but without a lot of educational experience," says Bowmaker. "They've got tremendous ideas and commitment but they need professional guidance. And I've got to stop them wearing themselves out."
People don't apply for the job of "midwife" to a new school unless they want a challenge. Monica Cross, currently head of Alderbrook School in Solihull, has an added dimension to the job facing her. The as-yet-unnamed Enfield secondary school that she has been appointed to lead is the first in Britain to be built under a private finance agreement. The construction company Laing Hyder is building the school and then taking the role of landlord, with responsibility for maintenance and security.
Cross says: "At my current school I've written a lot of bids, learned to read plans and so on. I won't have to worry about that but I will need a relationship with our PFI partners. It's a new ballgame for both of us - we'll be pioneers on both sides. I'm anxious to meet them because if we don't share a vision I'm going to find it very difficult."
She hopes for many things from the building, including "an inexhaustible supply of power sockets". A competition is being run to come up with a name for the school, which will open in September 2000. Many schools simply take the name of their location, but as this new school is on World's End Lane that easy option will be resisted here. "It needs to have a name as soon as possible so it can start developing an identity. But it won't be Apocalypse High," says Cross.
She is looking forward to taking up her post in January 2000. "It's the opportunity to realise a vision, to do it all from scratch, appoint staff who share the same approach to teaching and learning and create something that is right from the moment it starts."
And if there are dark moments en route, she can take comfort from the words of fellow Enfield head Elaine Wilmot, who opened West Grove Primary School to the first pupils last September. "It has been everything I hoped it would be," she says. "Families so committed to the school, children desperate to learn, staff that would live here 24 hours a day if I let them. Life couldn't be better."