Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Growing pains

School children

In 2002, Monks Park School in Bristol was faced with the challenge of absorbing 120 students from a nearby closing school. Ross Phillips talks about the challenges of building a new community in the face of uncertainty and false rumours.

Closing a school is never easy. The pupils, their families and community are understandably reluctant and feel cheated. There can be a sense of community grief for the lost school and strong suspicion about the new school. Reorganisation programmes create tension, uncertainty and loss of parental confidence.

This was the climate we faced in Bristol when, after local government reorganisation, it was obvious to all that a programme of school closures in the city was necessary. As the first phase of the programme rolled out, it was possible to see the impact of a closure nearby.

Our school took about three dozen students which, fortunately, went smoothly. However, in several cases, the schools receiving the majority of students from the closed school ended up with serious deficit budgets and even went into special measures.

Against this background, the leadership team was determined to be pro-active with respect to a further closure nearby. Realising that it was inevitable that most of the students from the school to be closed would transfer to our school, we prepared to offer all students a place if they wanted, irrespective of our PAN, provided certain conditions were met by the local authority. We approached the authority which greeted our plans with appreciation.

Our relationship with the school to close had always been very positive. Staff from both schools, at all levels, believed they could work together in the best interests of the students. The plan was for students to enter our school in year 10 in two stages - the first cohort in September 2003 and the second in 2004, at which time their school would be closed.

Year 9 would be used for preparation and choice of key stage 4 courses. Some courses would be 'tailor made' with a local FE college with which we already had strong curriculum links.

Having observed the financial difficulties some schools experienced after the closure funding dried up, we had negotiated a different mechanism for funding based on real pupil numbers. Six months before the first cohort came, we re-negotiated that mechanism. This was less generous to our school but has been successful in avoiding a deficit.

Searching out advice

Although we talked to schools that had been through the process of including children from closing schools, we could find no hard documentation, no academic research which might help us avoid pitfalls and serious difficulties.

Lots of attention was given to the closing school, for example personnel advice, extra education welfare time and enhanced salaries to retain staff. It was equally apparent that each closure was unique and very little serious sharing of practice for 'receiving' schools had been recorded.

When schools are closed there is often a sense of failure and negativity. Perhaps the school is in special measures and perceived as irredeemable. This was not true in our situation but the closure notice did contribute to further contraction in numbers. We did not, initially, see this as a problem.

Although some staff viewed our open-ended offer as wrong, there were really positive feelings about the plan as well as a sense of moral responsibility to the community. By 2002-03 we were growing faster than any other school in the city in both key stages. Rapid growth in pupil numbers has many positives which may be overlooked in the hurly burly of the process.

It was an opportunity to create a young, committed staff who knew full well that this journey of inclusion would not be easy. Re-thinking and developing our key stage 4 curriculum was a creative experience.

Deploying additional funding on white board technology and being able, across two years, to train all staff as the equipment came on stream in every classroom, was a rare opportunity.

There was as much excitement as apprehension about September 2003 as the first cohort of year 10 students transferred to the school. The huge process of reorganising every tutor and teaching group for year 10 went relatively smoothly.

The existing student and parent body was remarkably understanding even when temporary rather than permanent accommodation - as we had understood would be provided - took out all hard play areas. This did, and does, cause huge problems at lunchtimes.

Notwithstanding this, the tensions within the year group were not unmanageable or unexpected, and students seemed to settle well. An HMI monitoring visit in October 2003 observed that our inclusion plan seemed successful.

Media bombshell

However, just when all seemed to be going well, we hit a bombshell. Late in the autumn term, the local press reported that although the school closure was going ahead, the buildings would be used for another school - a relocation.

The article led the community to believe that all students, including those who had already transferred to us, would have the right to a place at that school if they wished. This turned out to be a false report, but its effect was devastating.

Although the closure plan continued and the site is now derelict, the damage to the community's confidence in education was severe. The grief felt by the community in the loss of their school resurfaced with a vengeance. Whereas the community had become resigned to the closure, the newspaper article reopened the wound and attitudes changed.

It was at this point we realised we had a serious credibility issue and had made some fundamental, if understandable, errors. The article had caught us unprepared and we weren't able to effectively deal with the questions and the backlash.

In the school, behaviour was becoming a real struggle. In the community, non-attendance was seen as acceptable. Attitudes hardened. Learning routines were not secure in the group arriving into year 10 - lack of punctuality, equipment and ambition were marked.

Spring term 2004 was just awful and all staff worked ferociously hard to get back to the more even atmosphere before the erroneous newspaper promise that the school would stay open.

Lessons learned

We are not out of the woods by any means but at the year 11 prom last summer, it was wonderful to see parents proud of their sons' and daughters' time at our school and students rubbing shoulders in their finery without any distinction.

So what would we do differently? On reflection, our focus was too myopic - we concentrated on curriculum provision and student need. We did not ask the sort of questions - some uncomfortable - that we should have done.

A crucial question should have been about the quality of teaching and learning experienced by the students up to the end of year 9. How large were the class sizes they were leaving behind? Only towards the end of year 11 did those students talk to us openly about the huge differences they experienced on transfer. Yes, they found corridors full with people, lots of activities to do, but for them it was a confusingly large school.

We did not recognise that many of the behaviour problems were the product of pressure on these students within the classroom. The hardest aspect of their transfer came from changes to their classroom experience: different teaching styles, expectations and challenge, and larger class sizes. So they rebelled, sometimes wantonly.

We would, with hindsight, spend more time on developing our new community. The news article was, for them, very demoralising and we did not have a robust enough network to effectively challenge what was in print. Parents moved their support away from us and it took 18 months to win it back.

The new self-evaluation form will help other schools who face this process since it will be an evidence base about the school that students are leaving.

But even with a more accessible evidence base, some simple mistakes that we made could be avoided. Because they were year 10 students, we forgot until too late to tell them what to do if they started to menstruate or lost their dinner ticket - so they went home or hungry.

We should have expected changes in policy mid-process and thus not been taken quite so much by surprise. We should have had better fallback plans when certain aspects did not emerge; we should have been less naïve.

School closures are really about the receiving school but most attention is on the closing school. Expecting it that way, and planning for it, will help to manage expectations for the students and the community.

Ross Phillips is head of Monks Park School, an 11-16 school in Bristol that now has just over 1,000 pupils.

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