The waiting game

21st May 2010 at 01:00
You've bagged a headship - but for a school that doesn't yet exist. Professionally isolated and tasked with nothing less than the creation of a brand-new institution or a `fresh start' academy, principal designates are a strange - but increasingly common - breed

Paul Mortimer was primed to become principal of a pound;54 million state-of-the-art academy, educating some 2,200 pupils. But before that day came, he was head of a school that did not yet exist.

He was appointed principal designate of the Isle of Sheppey Academy, just off the north Kent coast, in January 2008 - some 18 months before the first pupils arrived in September last year. During that time, he was a headteacher in waiting; the only member of staff for a school with no pupils, no teachers and no building.

"It was quite an unusual time," admits Dr Mortimer, who had to help co- ordinate the island's transition from a three to a two-tier system, plus the closure of four schools and the creation of a new academy across two sites.

"My office had to be in a neutral place, so it couldn't be construed as favouritism towards either site. The only place available was a Portakabin in the playground of one of the primary schools. It was very lonely."

The portable classroom also doubled as a home for a parent and toddler group. When they were in session, Dr Mortimer had to tuck himself into a corner office and close the door. But it was not just toddlers he had to face. Strong local opposition groups jeopardised the academy from the start: the funding agreement could not be signed until they were appeased.

His five-term preparation period reflects the number of stakeholders Dr Mortimer had to get on board, plus the complexity of the re-structuring project on the island, but many heads of new schools will find themselves in post at least two terms before their pupils. The rapid expansion of the academies programme means that there are dozens of school leaders preparing for headship in new or reconstituted schools.

Some will be principal designate of brand-new schools, while others will be taking the reins at a "fresh start" academy replacing a failing school or schools, but will remain in an existing building.

Dr Mortimer was faced with a blank sheet of paper. The academy's sponsors helped set the ethos of the school, but it was up to Dr Mortimer to design the curriculum and uniform from scratch, as well as meet or interview some 2,000 parents, 2,500 pupils and recruit 600 members of staff.

"I've never worked such long hours in my life," says Dr Mortimer, who had previously been an executive head of four schools in North West England over the course of 19 years in headship.

"I was doing 12-hour days during the week and working most of each weekend. I would often lose my voice at the end of the day after all the meetings with various people."

The sheer scale of things that need to be set in place can be daunting, agrees Andy Yarrow, who spent four terms as principal designate of Chelsea Academy in south-west London. But he saw it as a rare opportunity to bring about an ideal learning environment.

"Being a founding head is a real honour," says Mr Yarrow, who used his lead-in time to meet staff, parents and Year 6 pupils at every feeder primary school in the area. "It was a luxury to meet all our future learners. It changed my perspective. There was a great deal of anticipation and excitement."

The shortage of school places in central London meant 580 pupils applied for just 162 Year 7 vacancies at Chelsea Academy last September. This year, 750 pupils applied. Its popularity is based on the academy's vision rather than a well-established reputation.

Mr Yarrow was previously headteacher of the "outstanding" Hornsey School for Girls in north London, and the reputation he brings with him is undoubtedly a selling point.

Deputy heads with no prior experience of headship do not have this type of track record to fall back on. But that did not stop Frank Green, now chief executive of the Leigh Technology Academy in Dartford, Kent, who had been principal of its previous incarnation as a city technology college. In 1992 he became the first head of Lincoln School of Science and Technology (now Priory City of Lincoln Academy), the first specialist school in the UK. He had never been a head before arriving at Lincoln and did not know the area.

He started working full time only four months before the school opened in September, and was the only permanent employee until July. At that point, he appointed a deputy from Lincoln.

"I wanted someone who was good at marketing and selling, who had been in the area for some time and who could work with local primary schools and use his contacts," Mr Green says.

At the beginning of the summer holiday the school had only secured 20 pupils to start the following September - well short of the 100 needed. But it eventually opened with 135 pupils.

Among the practical problems facing the head of a new school is planning for a cohort of pupils that you do not yet know. New secondary schools can access primary school data, but without a previous cohort of key stage 2 pupils to assess, accuracy is likely to suffer.

"We projected the number of pupils with English as an additional language and those on free school meals, but it could never be more than an estimate," says Mr Yarrow. "The London population can be so transient that the pupils you thought you would get in March are not necessarily the ones you get in September."

When the Year 7 pupils did finally arrive at Chelsea Academy there were more with special needs than expected. Mr Yarrow puts this down to the academy being attractive to parents of children with special needs who prefer their children to attend smaller institutions.

It is a leap of faith for both parents and staff, Mr Yarrow adds. The teachers in the first year at Chelsea Academy had to take a risk: they can take time and attention over their Year 7 classes, but they miss out on teaching and developing their GCSE and A-level lessons.

"They need to have a pioneering spirit," says Mr Yarrow. "Teachers have to be excited by the idea of building a community from scratch as opposed to slotting into the established routine."

The senior management team was appointed five months before the school opened, but other members of staff started on the same day as the pupils. There was a social event in the summer for all the staff and a four-day training course(including a two-day residential) before term started, but other than that, they had to hit the ground running.

New primary schools are more of a rarity, unless of course there is a serious dearth of places. Jeavons Wood Primary School in Cambourne, Cambridgeshire, opened in September in response to a baby boom. The village's two other primary schools were full to bursting, meaning a dozen or so young children had to be bussed to a nearby village.

Jeavons Wood headteacher Sarah Humphreys was working in Indonesia when she was appointed in February last year, but could not return permanently to the UK until July. While she was away, she appointed an administrative manager to be her eyes and ears on the ground.

While they took care of the practical side of things, Ms Humphreys concentrated on the school's vision, curriculum and teaching staff. "I was given a precious opportunity to mould the school from scratch," she says.

"The advertisements we placed for staff were crystal clear about the sort of values and curriculum we wanted to build. If staff didn't want to wholeheartedly buy into that ethos, we would rather they didn't apply."

That attitude helped to ensure that all the staff were singing from the same hymn book, but the "newness" of the school was a hindrance in other ways. "It was exciting, but draining," Ms Humphreys says.

"We had to create a new community. None of the parents knew each other and we had to build a new parent-teacher association. The beginning was fraught with difficulties, right down to members of staff asking me where they should stand in the playground at breaktime."

Jeavons Wood has 62 pupils, with a view to expanding to 420. A three-18 "through school", which will eventually accommodate 1,850 pupils, is on a different scale.

Bede Academy in Blyth, Northumberland, a pound;40 million new build that opened last September, consists of a primary and secondary school across two sites. The principal designate of the secondary strand is Gwyneth Evans, who was appointed a year before the academy opened. She quickly appointed a vice-principal, assistant vice principal and a personal assistant, and the four-strong team set about designing a brand new vision.

Ms Evans's primary task was to establish a relationship with the local community, the soon-to-be redundant middle schools and Liz Clubbs, the primary principal. She also spent her first year establishing processes, policies and the curriculum, fine tuning the design of the building and organising induction days for the new staff and pupils.

"It was an enormously busy time," Ms Evans says. "We wanted to design an all-through curriculum that was as seamless as possible, where development and progression is built in, but repetition eradicated. It was also crucially important to keep residents well informed every step of the way."

There were no serious problems at Bede Academy, but that cannot be guaranteed at every new school. Keeping up staff and parent morale during periods of great uncertainty was one of Dr Mortimer's most challenging but important jobs.

"It was the toughest journey I've ever been on," he says. "Just when I thought it couldn't get any worse, it did."

At one point it looked as though the entire project would have to be scrapped, as opposition from the Sheppey Parents Action Group threatened to derail the scheme. But despite the struggles, the academy did open on time on its two temporary sites with some 2,200 pupils.

The opening was not entirely without setbacks - about 200 pupils were unable to get hold of the new school blazers - but early reports are that the academy provides a calm and purposeful learning environment.

Such things will always be a shared responsibility, but the buck usually stops with just one person: the principal designate. Well before pupils even sign up, it is their hard work that will set the tone and determine a new school's future become principal of a pound;54 million state-of-the-art academy, educating some 2,200 pupils. But before that day came, he was head of a school that did not yet exist.

He was appointed principal designate of the Isle of Sheppey Academy, just off the north Kent coast, in January 2008 - some 18 months before the first pupils arrived in September last year. During that time, he was a headteacher in waiting; the only member of staff for a school with no pupils, no teachers and no building.

"It was quite an unusual time," admits Dr Mortimer, who had to help co- ordinate the island's transition from a three to a two-tier system, plus the closure of four schools and the creation of a new academy across two sites.

"My office had to be in a neutral place, so it couldn't be construed as favouritism towards either site. The only place available was a Portakabin in the playground of one of the primary schools. It was very lonely."

The portable classroom also doubled as a home for a parent and toddler group. When they were in session, Dr Mortimer had to tuck himself into a corner office and close the door. But it was not just toddlers he had to face. Strong local opposition groups jeopardised the academy from the start: the funding agreement could not be signed until they were appeased.

His five-term preparation period reflects the number of stakeholders Dr Mortimer had to get on board, plus the complexity of the re-structuring project on the island, but many heads of new schools will find themselves in post at least two terms before their pupils. The rapid expansion of the academies programme means that there are dozens of school leaders preparing for headship in new or reconstituted schools.

Some will be principal designate of brand-new schools, while others will be taking the reins at a "fresh start" academy replacing a failing school or schools, but will remain in an existing building.

Dr Mortimer was faced with a blank sheet of paper. The academy's sponsors helped set the ethos of the school, but it was up to Dr Mortimer to design the curriculum and uniform from scratch, as well as meet or interview some 2,000 parents, 2,500 pupils and recruit 600 members of staff.

"I've never worked such long hours in my life," says Dr Mortimer, who had previously been an executive head of four schools in North West England over the course of 19 years in headship.

"I was doing 12-hour days during the week and working most of each weekend. I would often lose my voice at the end of the day after all the meetings with various people."

The sheer scale of things that need to be set in place can be daunting, agrees Andy Yarrow, who spent four terms as principal designate of Chelsea Academy in south-west London. But he saw it as a rare opportunity to bring about an ideal learning environment.

"Being a founding head is a real honour," says Mr Yarrow, who used his lead-in time to meet staff, parents and Year 6 pupils at every feeder primary school in the area. "It was a luxury to meet all our future learners. It changed my perspective. There was a great deal of anticipation and excitement."

The shortage of school places in central London meant 580 pupils applied for just 162 Year 7 vacancies at Chelsea Academy last September. This year, 750 pupils applied. Its popularity is based on the academy's vision rather than a well-established reputation.

Mr Yarrow was previously headteacher of the "outstanding" Hornsey School for Girls in north London, and the reputation he brings with him is undoubtedly a selling point.

Deputy heads with no prior experience of headship do not have this type of track record to fall back on. But that did not stop Frank Green, now chief executive of the Leigh Technology Academy in Dartford, Kent, who had been principal of its previous incarnation as a city technology college. In 1992 he became the first head of Lincoln School of Science and Technology (now Priory City of Lincoln Academy), the first specialist school in the UK. He had never been a head before arriving at Lincoln and did not know the area.

He started working full time only four months before the school opened in September, and was the only permanent employee until July. At that point, he appointed a deputy from Lincoln.

"I wanted someone who was good at marketing and selling, who had been in the area for some time and who could work with local primary schools and use his contacts," Mr Green says.

At the beginning of the summer holiday the school had only secured 20 pupils to start the following September - well short of the 100 needed. But it eventually opened with 135 pupils.

Among the practical problems facing the head of a new school is planning for a cohort of pupils that you do not yet know. New secondary schools can access primary school data, but without a previous cohort of key stage 2 pupils to assess, accuracy is likely to suffer.

"We projected the number of pupils with English as an additional language and those on free school meals, but it could never be more than an estimate," says Mr Yarrow. "The London population can be so transient that the pupils you thought you would get in March are not necessarily the ones you get in September."

When the Year 7 pupils did finally arrive at Chelsea Academy there were more with special needs than expected. Mr Yarrow puts this down to the academy being attractive to parents of children with special needs who prefer their children to attend smaller institutions.

It is a leap of faith for both parents and staff, Mr Yarrow adds. The teachers in the first year at Chelsea Academy had to take a risk: they can take time and attention over their Year 7 classes, but they miss out on teaching and developing their GCSE and A-level lessons.

"They need to have a pioneering spirit," says Mr Yarrow. "Teachers have to be excited by the idea of building a community from scratch as opposed to slotting into the established routine."

The senior management team was appointed five months before the school opened, but other members of staff started on the same day as the pupils. There was a social event in the summer for all the staff and a four-day training course(including a two-day residential) before term started, but other than that, they had to hit the ground running.

New primary schools are more of a rarity, unless of course there is a serious dearth of places. Jeavons Wood Primary School in Cambourne, Cambridgeshire, opened in September in response to a baby boom. The village's two other primary schools were full to bursting, meaning a dozen or so young children had to be bussed to a nearby village.

Jeavons Wood headteacher Sarah Humphreys was working in Indonesia when she was appointed in February last year, but could not return permanently to the UK until July. While she was away, she appointed an administrative manager to be her eyes and ears on the ground.

While they took care of the practical side of things, Ms Humphreys concentrated on the school's vision, curriculum and teaching staff. "I was given a precious opportunity to mould the school from scratch," she says.

"The advertisements we placed for staff were crystal clear about the sort of values and curriculum we wanted to build. If staff didn't want to wholeheartedly buy into that ethos, we would rather they didn't apply."

That attitude helped to ensure that all the staff were singing from the same hymn book, but the "newness" of the school was a hindrance in other ways. "It was exciting, but draining," Ms Humphreys says.

"We had to create a new community. None of the parents knew each other and we had to build a new parent-teacher association. The beginning was fraught with difficulties, right down to members of staff asking me where they should stand in the playground at breaktime."

Jeavons Wood has 62 pupils, with a view to expanding to 420. A three-18 "through school", which will eventually accommodate 1,850 pupils, is on a different scale.

Bede Academy in Blyth, Northumberland, a pound;40 million new build that opened last September, consists of a primary and secondary school across two sites. The principal designate of the secondary strand is Gwyneth Evans, who was appointed a year before the academy opened. She quickly appointed a vice-principal, assistant vice principal and a personal assistant, and the four-strong team set about designing a brand new vision.

Ms Evans's primary task was to establish a relationship with the local community, the soon-to-be redundant middle schools and Liz Clubbs, the primary principal. She also spent her first year establishing processes, policies and the curriculum, fine tuning the design of the building and organising induction days for the new staff and pupils.

"It was an enormously busy time," Ms Evans says. "We wanted to design an all-through curriculum that was as seamless as possible, where development and progression is built in, but repetition eradicated. It was also crucially important to keep residents well informed every step of the way."

There were no serious problems at Bede Academy, but that cannot be guaranteed at every new school. Keeping up staff and parent morale during periods of great uncertainty was one of Dr Mortimer's most challenging but important jobs.

"It was the toughest journey I've ever been on," he says. "Just when I thought it couldn't get any worse, it did."

At one point it looked as though the entire project would have to be scrapped, as opposition from the Sheppey Parents Action Group threatened to derail the scheme. But despite the struggles, the academy did open on time on its two temporary sites with some 2,200 pupils.

The opening was not entirely without setbacks - about 200 pupils were unable to get hold of the new school blazers - but early reports are that the academy provides a calm and purposeful learning environment.

Such things will always be a shared responsibility, but the buck usually stops with just one person: the principal designate. Well before pupils even sign up, it is their hard work that will set the tone and determine a new school's future.

Where new schools' key support comes from

- Sponsor or sponsors.

- Project steering group (PSG) - a management board that oversees the opening of a new school.

- Product breakdown structure (PBS) - a list of more than 200 tasks that need to be accomplished, provided by the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

- Overall project manager and team - to act as consultants and provide specialist human resources and legal advice.

- Education advisers and consultants from the local authority and DCSF.

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