From little acorns...

5th November 2004 at 00:00
The founders of Oakgrove school have a lot to consider before it opens next September, as Phil Revell reports

How do you feel about mission statements, those twee expressions that litter so many corporate letterheads? "Wonderful Widgets Limited - working for a brighter future".

Do schools really need this motherhood and apple-pie statement of the obvious?

Megan Crawford and Peter Barnes ought to know. They have a new school to create, and one of the things they had to get straight at the very beginning was an answer to the question, what kind of school would this be?

"It's important to articulate what you think," says Ms Crawford, the chair of governors for Oakgrove school. Oakgrove is currently a patch of muddy ground being reshaped by bulldozers, but next September it will open as Milton Keynes' newest secondary.

New schools start with a governing body. Ms Crawford is an education lecturer at Warwick university and had already been on the governing bodies of two new schools in the city. Other governors include teachers from Milton Keynes' schools.

First on a long list of things to consider was the headteacher. But before they could advertise, the governors needed to establish what they were hoping to see.

"We talked about the school, the area, and about vision and values," says Ms Crawford. "You have to be clear about the ethos. I really do believe in the head and governing body working together for the benefit of the students. It's not just a truism, the process is important.

"We ran an evening during which we brainstormed all the things we wanted to feel about the school. It's important to be able to refer back to that.

"Every school has a values statement, but for us this will be a touchstone," says Mr Barnes, who was appointed as Oakgrove's head earlier this year. At his interview he emphasised that the values of the school should be embedded in everything it does.

Decisions about staffing, the curriculum, uniform, and the pastoral system feed back into those early discussions about core beliefs.

"We had quite a rigorous discussion about uniform," Ms Crawford recalls.

Some governors would have preferred a uniform-free school. "There was a reasonable divergence of opinion," she says. "It was a good discussion, because people were prepared to compromise."

Oakgrove will have uniform, with a French navy blazer, charcoal grey trousers or skirt, and a tie for the boys. Governors are still considering a badge.

There will be a traditional pastoral system, with year heads. Oakgrove will take Years 7 and 8 in 2005, expanding to a maximum of 1,500 pupils. The key stage 3 curriculum will, through necessity, differ little from that on offer elsewhere, but Oakgrove will have an extended day. Mr Barnes plans to use the additional time to offer a range of options not included in the national curriculum, such as First Aid, which, he says, "every child should know".

There are plans for "shuffle days" when subjects are delivered together, and the governors are keen on the idea of curriculum projects that might see the whole school working together.

"From the beginning we will have the processes of self-review and reflection built into everything we do," says Mr Barnes.

But he warns against too radical a menu in a new school. Part of the core belief is about meeting the needs of the community - and, until he has a parent body to consult, he can't guess what they will wish to see.

"You have to reassure people," he says. "I wouldn't be happy setting up anything radical until the school was seen as successful in their eyes."

Much will depend on the staff. The first appointments to be made will be the school's special educational needs co-ordinator organiser, plus heads and deputies of year.

"We want to get these people appointed from April next year, so that they can go into the feeder schools with me and get to know the children," says Mr Barnes. "We want people to buy into the culture from the start. I'm going to ask the candidates to present (their job applications) on how they will absorb the school's aims and values into their work area."

Does the school have a mission statement? Not yet. But there are aims, including the wish to develop "a love of learning, intellectual curiosity and a willingness to question".

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