Starting a Brand New School
In May 2000 I was appointed Head teacher Designate for the ‘new secondary school’ in Redbridge. The school was to open in September 2001 on Barley Mow playing fields, Oaks Lane. I was to take up post officially in January 2001, giving me 8 months to prepare for the opening.
Starting a new school is both a wonderful opportunity and an enormous challenge. On taking up appointment I had no idea of the enormity of the task ahead. Once the initial excitement of being appointed had worn off the reality of the situation kicked in. I had no other members of staff, no buildings and no students. The school didn’t even have a name!
The period from January to September 2001 is a story in itself. The low point being in April 2001 when the builders walked off site and it became obvious that the school would not be ready for September. However, against all the odds Oaks Park opened in September 2001 as a brand new 8 form entry secondary school in the London Borough of Redbridge. As one might have guessed we opened in temporary accommodation – in 54 sections of Portacabin to be precise. Initially we started with 13 teaching staff and 9 support staff. We had an intake of 180 students. We limited the intake to 180 students as we felt that there may be problems in the first year. A wise decision!
So the Oaks Park adventure was underway. Starting a new school is very different and the first few years were very challenging to say the least. However the challenges were overcome and we set about building the ethos of the school.
Needless to say it wasn’t long before Ofsted arrived. The first inspection of Oaks Park took place between 6th and 9th October 2003. To show how much things have changed we were notified of the inspection in June! They concluded ‘The strong and highly effective leadership of the head teacher and governors has established Oaks Park as a very good school in a comparatively short period of time’
In effect when starting a new school you haven’t finished the process until the first year group are through. To enable that to happen we had to set up our key stage 4 programme in September 2004 and perhaps the biggest challenge of all starting a sixth form in September 2006.
The school continued to develop and in particular the sixth form grew rapidly. Of course further Ofsted inspections followed. We had an inspection of Mathematics and history in March 2007 and a section 8 inspection in October 2008. After celebrating our 10th anniversary in September 2011 we had another Ofsted inspection a month later. The first sentence of the report made impressive reading ‘The schools effectiveness is outstanding. It went on ‘The Head teacher, governors and all staff are rightly proud of what has been achieved in the school’s first decade’
There was no time to rest on our laurels as we were soon to be asked by the LEA to look at expanding the school to accommodate the population increase in Redbridge. So we undertook another major building programme to enable the school to take 10 forms of entry from September 2015. Needless to say the building programme wasn’t completed until January 2016. With the building programme completed I decide in January 2016 to announce my departure from Oaks Park in July.
One of the questions that I often get asked is ‘Looking back, what would you have done differently?’ Before responding to that, a number of people think that setting up a new school is easy. It gives you a chance to appoint all your own staff, and set the ethos you want. Whilst there is an element of truth in this I can assure you that it is not as easy as it sounds.
There are two major problems with starting a new school. The first is that more often than not money is tight and it imposes restrictions on what you are able to do. Secondly recruitment is not easy. When I was recruiting it must be remembered that we had no buildings. I had to convince staff that Oaks Park was a good career move for them. Staff coming to Oaks Park knew that they would not teach GCSE for 3 years and A level for 5. It was tough, but we managed to recruit some excellent staff who bought into the vision.
What advice would I give to someone setting up a new school? Inevitably at Oaks Park we were faced with seemingly endless problems in getting the school up and running. Once the school opened we were in effect running 2 schools. In addition to managing the school on a day to day basis we were planning for the following year. We spent many hours recruiting, purchasing resources and preparing budgets.
If I could do it again the biggest change I would have made would have been to give myself a long period of time before we opened to develop a seven year plan. This would have changed many of the decisions I made in the early years, particularly in relation to appointments. The time to do all the long term strategic thinking is at the beginning. Once the school is opened you barely have time to think!