From the ground up

8th June 2001 at 01:00
In the first of four articles, Jane Branson explains what it's like to start at a new school - one so new it's not even built yet.

When I was a trainee, I cut an article out of The TES that dealt with one of the most precious aspects of teaching - the opportunity to rejuvenate practice and policy each September. The writer rhapsodised over cellophaned packets of new exercise books; clean blackboards; freshly uniformed, anxious and excited Year 7s; the energy and enthusiasm regenerated over the summer.

This September, a group of teachers and students in East Sussex will have all this and more as we move into the new Peacehaven community school, near Brighton. It's still a hard-hat area - but I have stood in what will be my classroom and relished the anticipation of light, space and the smell of new carpet and fresh paint. The school opens in September to about 180 Year 7s.

Peacehaven has never had its own secondary school. The south-coast town was founded in 1921 to provide homes for war veterans. As it has grown and changed over the decades, its need for a state secondary school has been met only once - albeit briefly - by the Tin School (no prizes for guessing the origins of that name). The new school is the culmination of years of campaigning by parents and action groups.

It's an exciting opportunity, although moving from a school in which you've had warm working relationships, and enjoyed the company of many children is never easy. For me, that school was Heathfield community college, a big, oversubscribed 11-to-18 comp with a largely rural catchment area. But any sense of loss is blended with the feeling, rare in teaching, of heading into the unknown, into a "virtual school" with a head, two other members of staff, no students and no building.

Three months on, appointments have been made, the building is progressing, the uniform has been decided, the school logo has been designed. And the four of us already in post are becoming practised at fending off other teachers' jibes, which range from raised eyebrows (well, that's not real teaching is it?), to envy (you must be very busy) and bewildered questions (what do you do all day?).

What we (that's the foundation team - head of modern foreign languages, head of English, dputy head and head) are doing is thinking, talking and planning - about the things that are fundamental to every school but that teachers rarely have time to talk about. How does the structure of the school day affect children's learning? How can we provide effective support to pupils? How can we help them to develop their emotional intelligence, to become independent learners, to manage their own time and studies? How shall we foster teaching and learning worthy of a truly 21st-century school? What kind of ethos do we want our school to have?

We know we want to promote a teaching ethos based on learning, and put the teacher researcher at the heart of the school improvement plan, so we have submitted several applications for best practice research scholarships (see Friday, May 25). Our overarching ethos will be one in which children and teachers are, as far as possible, co-workers. The way we embed this in the daily life of the school will be at the heart of all our decisions in the coming months.

This really is a unique term. I find it's often best to work from home, and that means establishing strange new work habits. I haven't heard a bell ring for weeks and am working more with adults than children. I am visiting other schools, and communicating avidly with newly appointed staff by email.

But our current work is rooted in everyday concerns. Daily liaison with the local education authority and the school builders and planners is a constant reminder of such realities as the school budget, the height of windows and the number and position of power points in each classroom. Last week, three teachers spent a valuable but farcical couple of hours, equipped with large pieces of paper cut to the size of desks and other furniture, planning the layout of rooms. Where should the data points, TVs and telephones go?

Perhaps more importantly, we are based in our feeder schools, where we can observe Year 6, and during the next few weeks we will answer the many questions they will have, about the standard of work they'll be doing, the menu in the canteen, travel arrangements, homework, bags, lockers, scooters - and us.

Jane Branson is head of English at Peacehaven community school, East Sussex. Her next diary will appear in July

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