Building a school from the ground up

5th October 2018 at 00:00
It sounds like a dream: the chance to start from scratch with hand-picked teachers in a state-of-the-art building where the rule book doesn’t need to be ripped up because it hasn’t even been written yet. But how do you plan for a school’s future when it has no past? Henry Hepburn visits Scotland’s first new secondary in decades ahead of its opening next year, and meets a headteacher with a lot to think about

This could be the most exciting school in Scotland to work in – or, for the same reason, the scariest. New recruits can’t ask anyone “How do we do that here?” because of one simple fact: Bertha Park High School doesn’t exist yet.

Scotland’s first brand-new secondary in nearly two decades will open its doors to pupils in August next year, but the building is still a shell. Exposed masonry is draped in vast expanses of green plastic netting that flaps in the wind, giving the impression of a dishevelled Pompidou Centre.

Already, however, Bertha Park has three teachers who are embracing what they describe as a once-in-a-lifetime chance. One is headteacher Stuart Clyde, who brims with enthusiasm about the “incredible opportunity” of having a year to establish a school. Rather than being weighed down with the day-to-day business of running an educational institution, Clyde – for now based at Perth and Kinross Council’s city-centre headquarters – largely spends his days considering how the new school will operate, as well as formulating its priorities.

“Every day is like an in-service day, researching, reading research, thinking about it, visiting other schools,” he says. “The kind of things that perhaps you wouldn’t have time for when you’re on the hamster wheel in a regular job.”

The school is being built for 1,100 pupils from S1-S6, but will open next August with just 200 students, all in S1-S2 (next year’s S2s are spending 2018-19 at Perth Grammar School). This was one of the biggest decisions made early in the planning of Bertha Park. Clyde says that moving S1-S6 pupils into a new school en masse could have proven“traumatic” for some. Limiting the early intake to only the youngest pupils will provide more time and space to get things right.

It will be 2022 before any Bertha Park pupils sit S4 exams, and 2024 before any head off to university with six years of secondary schooling under their belts. This, hopes Clyde, will allow the school to do things that others aspire to but struggle to make a reality. Having a vanguard of pupils who will always be the oldest in the school, he adds, may foster a generation of exceptional young leaders – although there is a cautionary tale to heed from the last brand-new secondary to open in Scotland (see box).

One pupil who is visiting the new site – Erin Irving, a P7 at Dunbarney Primary in Bridge of Earn – says that the prospect of always being one of the oldest pupils at Bertha Park makes her more confident about the move up to secondary.

Clyde wants the school’s S1-S3 “broad general education” to be as much about “preparation for the world of work and life after school as putting [pupils] through examinations”. The curriculum is still taking shape, but he favours one in which you “don’t fill the whole school with bespoke subjects”, where the interdisciplinary work that is routine in primaries is adapted for secondary.

With no pupils in senior phase (S4-S6) until 2021, Bertha Park has the “luxury” of time to shape its offering. “Even though you might think about redesigning your senior phase in August for the following year, you’ve not got a year to do it – you’ve got four months or so before you have to start thinking about how to timetable that new senior phase,” Clyde says.

He also wants Bertha Park to dispense with the old-fashioned notion of two-tiered qualifications; the school will foreground “what might have previously been termed as vocational courses” alongside its Scottish Qualifications Authority offerings, perhaps including Modern Apprenticeships, National Progression Awards and City & Guilds courses.

Creating a community

For now, Clyde – who sits at a picnic table on site while construction workers file past for Lorne sausage rolls from a fast-food van – has two fellow staff: Deborah Stead, principal teacher of pupil support, and Jim McMartin, principal guidance teacher.

This month, recruitment will start for other posts, with a total of 14 staff – 13 principal teachers and one depute head – due to be in place by August; 85-90 teachers will be required when the school eventually reaches capacity. Each recruit will start after the Easter break, giving them an entire term to get ready for the first influx of pupils, rather than trying to squeeze course development around classes, marking, and all the other day-to-day school duties.

They will be joining what Clyde calls “an establishment and community built from the ground up”. The school will largely serve the new Bertha Park housing estate, where 3,000 homes will be constructed over the course of 30 years, but the first residents are yet to move in. McMartin feels that, just as churches used to be hubs for local people, this school could perform a similar role: having opened before most of the new houses appear, it will shape the identity of the area. Clyde believes it is essential to take the views of this nascent community into account when devising a school culture and ethos – get these right, and “I wholeheartedly believe everything else will fall into place”, he says.

Caroline Shiers, Perth and Kinross Council’s convener of lifelong learning, says that a key question when interviewing potential heads was how they would handle a school with “no institutional memory”. Executive education and children’s services director Sheena Devlin adds: “Not only are you creating the present and the future, you’re also generating the past at the same time – there is no past, there is no history, there is no orthodoxy, and there is no ‘aye been’.”

Clyde speaks to Tes Scotland after donning a hard hat to join a group of local primary teachers and future Bertha Park pupils visiting the new school building. One primary head, shouting above the grind of saws and clang of metal poles, smiles and casts an envious glance at Clyde: “The chance to choose all your teachers – a headteacher’s dream!”

This will be a recruitment process like no other for Clyde, who previously worked at the Community School of Auchterarder, about 15 miles along the A9. “Most of the time just now is spent making sure we get the right people on the bus,” he says. “We need people who are going to be flexible, forward-thinking and relentlessly positive.”

Applicants will watch interactive videos about the school instead of having reams of Word documents to print off. This will act as a “filtering mechanism”, Clyde hopes. “The type of people I’m looking for are not those who would be intimidated by this, who couldn’t produce the same type of stuff.”

He sees Bertha Park as technology-driven – it has already become the only UK school and one of 17 worldwide selected for Microsoft’s Flagship Schools programme, which aims to “transform education from the ground up”. Clyde has also been researching the impact of “one-to-one” schemes, which involve each pupil in a class being issued with their own tablet.

McMartin, meanwhile, brings experience of working as a maths teacher in the New Zealand schools system – where innovative use of ICT in education was “night and day” compared with Scotland – and a belief that young people’s expertise in navigating the digital world is overstated and can lead to complacency. This leads to outdated practices, such as classes having to book dedicated ICT suites and being made to “PowerPoint everything to death”.

Modelling mindfulness

Mental health is another area in which Bertha Park hopes to innovate. Stead, who has moved from Orkney to take up the principal pupil-support role, has always wanted to see “mindfulness threaded through the curriculum”. She says such initiatives are usually driven by a few individuals in a school – “it’s either a bolt-on or a few people shouting from the corners” – and then built up very slowly. But the hope is that all Bertha Park teachers will be trained in mental health strategies, such as mindfulness.

“We’re not going to be in a situation where we have any naysayers because we can hire people who agree with that [new approach] and want to be part of it,” she says.

Stead believes the focus on mental health may require a departure from the common model of seven 50-minute periods, with the school day instead being built around longer sessions that give pupils more time to settle into a task. Bertha Park is also looking at using the school bell less often – it has been suggested by children’s charities that this repeated noise can be unsettling or even distressing. Meanwhile, McMartin wonders whether better use could be made of the traditional 10-minute registration period at the start of the day so that “idle time” instead becomes an opportunity to practise mindfulness techniques.

“That’s what’s really exciting,” says Stead of working in a place with no pre-existing practices. “Everything you’d just normally assume you’d be doing is met with questions: ‘Well, why do we do that? What are the benefits? Should we be doing that?’ ”

Clyde is determined to get parents on board – “I am flooding our parental body and our community with information and consultation about this place because I want them to start off from a good place, I don’t want there to be opposition” – and says that their sometimes “surprising” feedback is already shaping the school.

“What I got an awful lot more of than I expected was about having a safe place for the children to be,” he says. “It wasn’t about what qualifications we churn the kids out with – it was more about how [parents] wanted the place to feel, [about] respect, tolerance, safety, anti-bullying, being kind to each other.”

Clyde says it is critical that a school is not “battling against parents” but genuinely involving them – not only for their benefit but also for staff wellbeing. However, in the past 10-15 years, he has noticed a growing tendency for some parents to be “accusatory” and “aggressive” with teachers, sometimes fuelled by Facebook or WhatsApp groups.

“That’s actually incredibly detrimental to the school, and to the ethos and morale of people working in there,” he says. “I don’t think enough people realise that you’re not a crash-test dummy, that there are real people working in these schools with feelings and vulnerability.”

Clyde argues pre-emptive action is best, and the Bertha Park situation makes that possible in a way that those in a school with a long history – and associated baggage – can only imagine. “All relationships have to be the best they can be to make everything else work; if you build your school on the rocky foundations of bad relationships, then you’re on a hiding to nothing,” he says.

Establishing strong links

Bertha Park is also bending the ear of local employers and finding that, more than formal qualifications, they often prioritise skills such as adaptability and ability to deliver presentations. “We’ve got a unique opportunity to develop our curriculum from scratch and build these things in,” says Clyde.

Similarly, Bertha Park wants to build strong links with the further education sector from the start, and is setting the tone by asking graphic communications and design students to consult with families and come up with a school badge.

The building itself is also a key part of Bertha Park’s story. It includes some of the enclosed, discrete classrooms of old, but they are deliberately placed on the perimeter; in the interior are large, open spaces where multiple classes could all be working at the same time, while a central amphitheatre, flooded with natural light, feels more like a meeting place for ancient Athenian scholars than a traditional assembly hall.

Clyde does not want to be an office-bound head, and says the school’s design will help. “The whole structure of the building begs you to walk around and see what’s there. It’s not corridor after corridor of everything looking the same – it’s a lovely environment to be in. Why wouldn’t you want to go around in there?”

By the time Bertha Park opens, it will be nearly two decades since Curriculum for Excellence was conceived. Its bold initial vision of an education system that worked for everyone and dispensed with traditional hierarchies – schools where university-bound pupils and “academic” subjects took priority – has often fallen short in practice, with old habits dying particularly hard in secondary schools. Which begs the question, does Bertha Park have a better shot at realising this vision than any other secondary?

“Ask me that in a year’s time,” laughs Clyde. “But if anyone has been given an opportunity to deliver what Curriculum for Excellence intended, it’s us – so we’re going to go as full tilt as we can to make that a reality.”

Henry Hepburn is news editor for Tes Scotland. He tweets @Henry_Hepburn

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