The challenges of a new school

7th January 2005 at 00:00
Pick a site, build state-of-the-art facilities, recruit staff, draft in pupils and you have a school: the magic is creating an integrated education community. Headteacher Andrew Sutherland reports on progress at Meldrum Academy.

Meldrum Academy first opened its doors in August 2002, to a cohort of first and second year pupils drafted from 13 associated primaries and two large neighbouring secondaries. The plan is that by August 2006 the three secondaries will each have about 1,000 pupils.

The school, built on a site where none existed, was Aberdeenshire's first private finance initiative and cost about pound;16 million. The challenge for me, as headteacher, was to recruit the teaching and support staff - some transferred from neighbouring schools - and create a school community in an area of Oldmeldrum that had no experience of one.

It was to be an integrated community school and we would pilot new management structures.

When the school opened, it was the first in Scotland to have faculty principal teachers, a reduced senior management team, a business support manager and pastoral care staff who carried out guidance duties and managed behaviour. Within a year, the senior management team recognised a gap in the provision and, working with the education authority, increased the normal range of learning and behaviour support to include a base for pupils with severe and complex needs and an autism base. The school is now truly inclusive in its access policy.

Outside the school, the main talking point has been our faculty structures.

This is now a national debate and some schools have moved far beyond the model originally conceived at Meldrum Academy. Here, the faculty model and management structures have not been a major issue: perhaps the full impact will not be recognised until we have had our first SQA exam presentations in 2005.

The key to success in academic performance is good teaching managed by excellent teachers. At Meldrum Academy we have first class teachers who are willing to go the extra mile for pupils. That is what the autonomous professional is really about. In every subject discipline, we have at least two specialist teachers who can discuss, share, cross-moderate and analyse courses and performance on an equal footing.

Our staffing profile is unusual. In three years I have interviewed more than 600 people for teaching and support posts. For teaching posts, there are at least 12 women to each man who applies, and the small number of men have rarely managed to match the quality of interview and qualification of their peers.

A female dominated staff has undoubtedly influenced the management of the school, from behaviour strategies, especially in role modelling and working with teenage boys, to dealing with varied employment patterns.

We have already had about 10 per cent of the teaching staff on maternity leave and job sharing is becoming increasingly popular. If the pattern of recruitment continues, all schools could eventually mirror our staffing profile.

The biggest challenge has simply been setting up a new school. We had no policies or procedures and few courses or resources in place before opening. Our teaching and support staff have worked flat out to generate these. We wanted to shape our own ethos and identity so, in addition to the normal daily trials and tribulations of a school, we had continual course development and policy creation. It was a much greater task than I had anticipated.

Another challenge was starting with first and second year pupils and expanding annually. At first, colleagues were envious of our opportunity to mould junior year groups into Meldrum Academy ambassadors. That was true to an extent. Our pupils have had more whole school and senior school experiences than most their age, from helping at parent and community functions to being involved in team building and enterprise activities normally reserved for sixth year. But few of us realised the impact that the absence of an S5 and S6 cohort would have on the development of ethos and on pupil role modelling and learning and teaching.

We have excellent pupils, but many have never seen senior pupils work hard for key examinations. They have not seen the type of adult interpersonal interaction that is evident between teacher and senior pupil.

The key pupil voices heard in our school are S3 and S4 pupils, and their developmental stages vary. A sizeable minority are at the stage of understanding rights but are less switched on to responsibilities. This is normal behaviour for 14- to 15-year-olds, but is not counterbalanced by the reasonable tones of senior pupils.

Junior secondary schools are very different from six-year comprehensives and, from this experience, I would resist all moves to create sixth form colleges, leaving four-year secondary schools.

The challenge of supplementing our support for learning provision by establishing a severe and complex needs base and an autism base has been very successful, thanks to a first class principal teacher and an excellent team who cater for all the various educational and behavioural needs. The Connections Suite, as it is known, is at the heart of the school and the friendly and supportive interaction of all the children, at all break times in the cafeteria and social areas as well as in classes, is superb. We have all benefited.

The integrated community school is working well. We have a core team based at the academy, including a social worker, family link worker, health worker and pupil support worker. The depute (welfare and pastoral care) manages and co-ordinates pastoral care and support for learning and links closely with the integrated community school team and other partners such as the health board and psychology service. It is all low key and practical and it is making a difference to pupils and families.

Over the next few years many things, no doubt, will jump up and bite us on the backside: that is life in a secondary school. However, things are going well and I am very confident of the future because we have an outstanding and committed staff and a community that is supportive and positive. At the end of the day, that is what makes a difference and what makes a good school.

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