Here they come, ready or not!

21st September 2001 at 01:00
In her latest report on life in a newly built school Jane Branson prepares for action

One of our first missions - difficult but not impossible - is to take a photo of every prospective student in one day. Having been out of the classroom for weeks, three members of the foundation team (the planning group in post since Easter) tour the feeder primaries armed with a digital camera and a box full of uniforms.

We need a head and shoulders shot of every child for our electronic registration cards. It's three days before the end of term and the excitement among the Year 6 pupils is palpable. They pull on the new polo shirts (black or white) and sweatshirts (berry red), both discreetly decorated with the new school logo - a red sphere crossed through with a narrow yellow strip, representing the meridian line which runs through Peacehaven. Few can stop smiling. The hairbrushes come out, the mirrors are in high demand and there's a great deal of mutual collar-straightening and reassurance. No, it's not too big; yes, leave your glasses on.

As staff, our first days together have been characterised by high-pitched laughter - in our calmer moments - and urgent scurrying. The pace of change, from day to day and moment to moment, has been breathless, but teachers are accustomed to being flexible.

Anyway, it's a good induction to our first five years. In-service training days (increased to four by special request) have been packed. We have received training on how to use interactive whiteboards, mentoring and managing "learning team time" (a kind of grown-up circle time). I've visited a book supplier with the librarian and ordered thousands of pounds-worth of books (an English teacher's dream shopping trip). We have unpacked our deliveries and found our way around the school.

We achieved a lot at the end of last term, during the holiday and in the pre-term period. Peacehaven community school, the first secondary this town has had since its inception after the First World War, has a full complement of staff - and not one of them has been press-ganged or hauled in from the street.

We also have a timetable, our class lists are complete and our curriculum plan is in place. We've met every pupil in our first cohort, their parents and teachers have been consulted and their key stage 2 results analysed.

But as I write, an awful lot remains to be done. In two days we will hand out personal organisers, give the pupils their shiny new folders and subject dividers, show them where to find their lockers and explain the cashless catering system. We will tour the building, many of us trying desperately to remember which part is which (um, this is a blue door, it must beI science).

We watched the building work progress during the holidays with what seemed an excruciating lack of urgency. But gradually the computer system was put in place, the classrooms filled with tables and chairs, a telephone installed and detritus cleared from the corridors to make room for lockers.

Deliveries delayed until the end of the holiday have arrived. But there's been one near-miss: the photocopier turned up on the day the front of the school was being paved. Intense negotiations followed before it took its place safely among our growing collection of possessions.

It's easy, in such situations, to get hung up about the building, the equipment and boxes of books. I've spent a couple of hours "snagging" the English suite, a tortuous process that involves writing down every fault and deviation from the contract. I am worried about how we are going to fill our beautiful, light, airy library, which has been over-enthusiastically equipped with enough shelving for 32,000 books. Staff keep looking for potential health and safety hazards, and trying to prepare their resource bases.

Yet the students themselves are certainly our most important assets and it is their presence, much more than any building or logo, which will define our identity. Soon we will begin the work we've been planning for the past few months. We will start helping our students to find out how they learn best, how they can make the most of their school and how they have a right to be educated and a responsibility to learn. We don't want them to be learned, but to be learners - active participants in a process, engaging in the challenges and the excitement of that process. We won't be able to do this easily or on our own.

In their school years, young people spend only 20 per cent of their waking time at school; the parents of Peacehaven have campaigned for years for this school, but the moment it opens its doors will only be the beginning of the next phase in our relationship with the local community.

Jane Branson thanks her colleagues, especially Fiona Wright, for help with this article. Her final diary will appear in October. Peacehaven community school in East Sussex opened this month with 180 Year 7 pupils

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