When you think of a parent-promoted school what do you imagine? If your thoughts are negative, revise them. Fiona Leney reports on one school that has formed a partnership between professionals and parents.Walk into The Elmgreen School in the morning and it seems to be a secondary school like any other. Year 7s stream cheerfully into class, resplendent in their new black and green uniforms. But this school is unusual. Open for less than two months, it is Britain's first "parent-promoted" state school, set up after more than 500 parents in the south London borough of Lambeth petitioned their local authority to address the shortage of secondary school places.
They didn't want an academy, they wanted a truly non-selective comprehensive school serving the local community, and formed a Parent Promoter Foundation (PPF) to work with Lambeth in order to get the sort of school they wanted. Three years later, Elmgreen has opened, albeit in temporary premises because its pound;25 million new-build site nearby won't be ready until 2009, and the parents have handed over control to a dynamic headteacher and senior management team.
The school's leaders are determined to use the parental goodwill that has led to the school's creation to build it into the sort of place where learning is boosted by a meaningful partnership between professionals and parents.
Elmgreen's status is that of a voluntary maintained school, like any other in the country, and Asma Mansuri, headteacher, says she is tired of telling people that the label "parent-controlled" is simply wrong.
Although parents do have a majority on the governing body - 12 out of 20 governors - to reflect the PPF's role in the school's foundation, appointments are made by the governing body in the same way as at any other maintained school, and suggestions that parents may try to interfere are briskly quashed.
"We think about how we talk to parents, and help them to help their children. But the governing body and the senior management team run the school," she says. "Parental engagement with a school is vital of course, and I'd have wanted to do everything to foster that wherever I was head. Here, the beauty is that it was a given."
One of the ways Elmgreen intends to build on this is to replace formal parents' evenings with a series of contact weeks throughout the year - three for tutor group issues and three for curriculum issues - during which teachers will speak to parents on the phone, or face-to-face, to talk about their children.
It sounds like a lot of work, especially as the school expands. But as John Wilkinson, deputy head, points out, some children will need less discussion than others, and as pupil numbers rise, so will those of staff. "By 2013 we will have 1,100 children, but also many more staff, and we want all adults, including the head and deputy head, to be involved in speaking to parents about their children," he says.
John is quick to dismiss any suggestion that Elmgreen's parent-promoted background, and its openness, might encourage parents to get pushy. "Are parents queuing up to harass us? Not at all. I can honestly say that no applicant for a job here has raised this fear. It simply isn't an issue," he says.
The school-home contact policy is just one example of what Asma calls the opportunity to bring together best practice in an innovative way. "We visited 50 or 60 schools looking for innovative ideas and we've seen lots of individual cases. We've had an opportunity to bring them together here," she says.
Another innovation is scrapping early-morning registration in favour of an immediate start, which gives a greater incentive for pupils to turn up for school on time. It also allows half an hour for "personal lesson time" just before lunch - where any extra help needed on a subject can be given - and a homework planning period at the end of the day.
Assembly takes place just once a week and is during the middle of the day, making it easier to find speakers prepared to come in and talk to the children. And out has gone the school bell, apart from first thing in the morning and after lunch. "It doesn't teach children how to manage their time. Without a bell, they have to learn to use a watch or clock," Asma says.
The prospect of working at the school attracted considerable interest, despite the fact that it wasn't offering "super-teacher" salaries. There were about 100 applications for each of the senior management team jobs, says John, and more than 150 for the post of assistant head.
But, Asma adds, picking the right people was more difficult. "I needed Renaissance people, who could be creative and also have the capacity to lead in the future, when we expand our staff," she says.
The importance of a flexible, committed staff becomes clear when you consider Elmgreen's budget constraints. While a new academy may expect upwards of pound;2 million towards start-up costs, Elmgreen was initially offered the amount given for yearly maintenance to any local school: pound;800,000. It took ferocious lobbying, helped by the PPF, to extract another pound;700,000.
"I sat in a classroom counting out rubbers and rulers to make sure we had enough," recalls Michael Burke, the school's finance director.
And for the moment, while Elmgreen has only 180 children, there is funding for only 15 teaching staff and a handful of teaching assistants. These numbers will rise with next year's intake, but for the moment, colleagues depend heavily on each other for support.
"With large departments you can have staff with complementary skills, but when you only have one person who's the whole department, they have to be creative and have the capacity to develop that role. There's also a real sense of sharing resources and knowledge among the staff. Everyone is teaching outside their specialism at the moment," Asma says.
While it is easy to see the stimulation this offers a more experienced teacher, it might be daunting for a new teacher. Nevertheless, Filipe Cequeira, a new geography teacher, has no regrets about starting his career in a school that is itself starting up. He says he was attracted by the chance to put training into action in a setting not hidebound by established systems. "I'm getting support from the whole staff; we've been bonded by the experience we are sharing," he says.
"As far as mentoring goes, John (Wilkinson) looks after new teachers and I have weekly meetings with another senior member of staff."
He enjoys having the luxury of time to plan and evaluate his lessons - he only delivers two geography sessions a week at present - and is to be sent to other schools for experience of teaching other age groups and key stages.
In fact, Elmgreen has benefited enormously from the community spirit among neighbouring schools. Despite taking three colleagues with her when she left, Asma clearly still has excellent relations with her old school, Dunraven Comprehensive, whose head of art ordered all of Elmgreen's art equipment for them before term started.
The opening of Elmgreen has already caught the attention of parents elsewhere. "I get emails from around the country asking about what we've done - but the greatest number come from London," says Katie Scrase, a parent and PPF project manager. "One group of parents from Camden, north London, has started looking for sites, but the problem there is that land is so expensive. We have been very lucky."