There are currently very few schools that are considered large enough to be dubbed “titan” schools. My school is one of them: we have 2,570 students on roll, 176 teachers and 144 members of support staff.
Yet this group of larger schools won’t be so exclusive in the future. With the pupil population growing bigger by the year and the first wave of that growth arriving in secondary schools from next year, councils are looking to expand schools to meet demand (TES, 9 October edition, bit.ly/titanschools).
So how do you run a titan school? I have served as headteacher at Ashfield School, in Kirkby-in-Ashfield, Nottinghamshire, for eight years. Here’s what I have learnt about the challenges of large schools and how to overcome them.
Richard Vasey is headteacher at Ashfield School, Nottinghamshire.
The main issues with such a large staff (apart from not having a staffroom big enough for us all) are communication and consistency. We work hard to improve these and staff tell us that both have got better in recent years, but nevertheless, this remains a constant challenge for us at such a large school.
For example, our subject departments are big. The science department has 24 members of staff, the English department has 19 and we have 10 cover supervisors.
The key to ensuring that all teams work effectively despite the number of teachers within them – and making sure that the whole-school aims are not lost – is the quality of leadership at all levels in the school.
We have invested a great deal of time in restructuring the leadership roles and ensuring that all leaders are clear about the school aims and priorities. So within each curriculum team, there are between six and seven teachers holding a teaching and learning responsibility (TLR) who share responsibility for the leadership of the team with the head of faculty. These TLR teams work as “teams within teams” and ensure that school aims and priorities are delivered.
As for leadership on a whole-school level, I am a firm believer in distributed leadership and this is the only strategy that will work effectively in such a large organisation. Leaders are given the responsibility to carry out their duties but they are held to account for their areas of the school. Having very clear roles and responsibilities improves the quality of leadership, as does success criteria against which leaders will be regularly assessed.
On a personal level, I have to ensure that I know all my staff. Staff turnover, by definition, is large with between 20 and 30 new staff starting each year. I am very conscious that I have to know every member of staff and will religiously print out photos of new staff and learn their names – a bit like learning a new class each year.
Staff meetings at Ashfield are held in the school hall and it is like doing an assembly – often there are more than 300 staff who will be in attendance.
Many staff do not know each other, so we try very hard on Inset days to mix staff up from different teams. It is a quirky Ashfield fact that on these occasions, staff start by introducing themselves to each other.
We create unity by having a very clear vision for the school, supported by our core values, which were agreed by our staff and students some years ago.
All of this is underpinned by a simple, clear school improvement plan, one that all of our staff sign up to through their team action plans each year.
In our recent questionnaire distributed to staff at Ashfield, 100 per cent said that they know what we are trying to achieve as a school.
Students cannot drift through our school unnoticed, or hide away – though one might think that would be easier in a larger school. We revamped the whole pastoral system six years ago and the sole purpose was to ensure that tutors get to know each student as an individual – one of our core values. Tutors have more time with their students and through the pastoral and extra-curricular programmes they get to know each student really well. Developing positive relationships between students and between staff and students has been a running priority for the past five years and as a result the level of mutual respect within the school has grown enormously.