Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Exploring new territory

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With only year 7s to contend with, you would think the autumn term would have been a walk in the park. However, Andy Yarrow reports, there have been a few surprises.

I have had to deal with a rather unusual phenomenon in my new school over the past term. The creatures in question are quite small, on the whole, but can be very demanding. They tend to be known in the wild as 'children', but in the spirit of high aspirations we call them 'students'.

No need to panic. There are only 162 of them and all in year 7. And, of course, they are never always present at the same time. Nonetheless, their existence has certainly helped to clarify the core purpose of the school, in contrast to the relatively surreal experience of the past year writing 87 polices and designing a curriculum with no pupils or staff to relate them to.

These pupils are a fascinating species, with reading ages spanning from 7 to 16 and levels of emotional intelligence and maturity to match. They display an extremely wide range of abilities and are from a diverse range of socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. They are a high-maintenance bunch.

Nonetheless, visitors invariably comment on their confidence, enthusiasm and pride in their new school. Colleagues with experience of setting up new schools had warned of the tendency for year 7 students to quickly get too big for their boots, with no older students to keep them in check. Who would have thought that stroppy year 9s could actually be responsible for maintaining excellent behaviour in year 7?

There is undoubtedly some truth in this but, equally, the lack of peer pressure has helped to retain something of the innocent enthusiasm and has helped the students' self-confidence and self-esteem to grow in ways it may not have done otherwise. In what other school could the head boy be in year 7, for example?

Interestingly, some of our most innovative features have turned out to be the most successful. We have coaching groups of just nine students, who meet with their learning coach twice a day to review their progress and address social or pastoral issues.

This quickly facilitates much more meaningful and well-informed relationships than the traditional form tutor model and gives all staff the opportunity to be directly and equally involved in supporting learning.

The 30-minute lunch breaks, where staff take students to lunch at a set point during a lesson and then return to the lesson and carry on, have been surprisingly successful as have the flexible breaks, the timing and duration of which are at the teacher's discretion.

Same day detentions, agreed to in advance by parents as part of the home-school agreement, are a useful sanction and deterrent. And initially I thought that some students might struggle with six hours of lessons per day but, in reality, many are at school from 8am until almost 6pm, such is the range of the extended curriculum.

So, in hindsight, what did I do last year that was particularly worthwhile? First, building genuine relationships with potential feeder primary schools is worth its weight in gold in terms of student recruitment, transition, raising awareness and sharing good practice.

Second, the time spent planning the foundations of an engaging curriculum, which highlights competencies that young people need for a successful life without sacrificing rigorous subject teaching, is also important.

And, thirdly, we had to get the basics right: putting in place robust, straightforward systems to monitor and continuously improve learning, teaching and behaviour.

Ultimately, the test of success must include examination results. After one term, that isn't really an option. However, last year we received 580 applications for the first ever 162 places. This year the number of applications has risen to 750. Something must be working!

Our second stage of staff recruitment kicked off after Christmas. I have a new strategy for weeding out inappropriate candidates before they spend the whole day being interviewed. In my next diary, I will tell you what it is and if it works...

Andy Yarrow is head of The Chelsea Academy in London and an ASCL Council member.

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