Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

High expectations and aspirations

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As Chelsea Academy gets ready to open its doors to students for the first time, there's only one obstacle left: Ofsted. Andy Yarrow gives his last termly update as the head of a school with no students.

Few headteachers jump up and down with excitement at the announcement of an Ofsted inspection - but who ever heard of an inspection in August? That's what I am preparing for as I write this article. A brand new school has to be signed off by both the DCSF and Ofsted, through two separate processes, before it is allowed to open.

In the case of the Ofsted inspection, this cannot take place until the buildings are more or less ready for occupation. For our academy, the first year will be in temporary accommodation which was constructed during the summer holidays.

Now there's a thought...162 children have been given places to start in September. They have all had detailed induction interviews, along with their parents, some of which have lasted the best part of an hour. They have been to an induction information evening and a teambuilding day. They've ordered their uniform and some have even started to share their excitement and anticipation about September on the academy's learning platform.

The DCSF has signed us off but what if Ofsted say we are not fit to open? Maybe they won't like the temporary toilets or the third paragraph of the quality assurance policy? We could have our work cut out between now and the start of term.

It's a strange thing inducting students into a school that doesn't exist yet. In most schools, a stern talk about the "traditions of high academic standards and firm discipline set by those who have gone before" are enough to keep the new year 7s humble and nervous until about three days into the autumn term.

But what do you do if your school has no traditions? No stories of punishments exaggerated by older siblings; no oak panelled halls with the names of head girls and boys; no trophy cabinets full of mysterious cups displaying varying degrees of tarnish.

We have had to create and sell an ethos from scratch and we have been very strict indeed. Too strict, according to some. But how else can one start a brand new school? We have set highly challenging targets for our students and in my welcome letter to parents I have spoken of our culture of no excuses.

I have used the phrase 'high aspirations and expectations' so often, it has crept into my conversations at home, on the telephone and when shopping. (To quite good effect, I might add.) But will this work? How will we keep the expectations and aspirations high? Will all the staff and students interpret such superlatives in the same way? Will all the students and their parents be able to cope with the regime? Time will tell.

There is a risk that the first few days of term for the students will seem more like a trip to the BAFTAs than the commencement of secondary education. The sponsors are keen to have a high-profile opening ceremony on the first day that will catch the eye of the local media and we need photographs of the students doing educational things in their uniforms as soon as possible in order to make the print deadline for the new prospectus.

Then there are the photos for the school's own database and for its historical archives. You can only be a new school once!

My four terms as the headteacher of a school with no children will soon be a distant memory. But it will be another two years before I see any GCSE classes, so I expect the teasing from colleagues with 'proper schools' will not be over for a while yet.

Andy Yarrow is head of the Chelsea Academy in London. Over the coming year, he will update readers termly of how the school fares during its first year.

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