Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Three become one

Group of children

ASCL member Dave Harris found his professional life turned upside down when he agreed to become head of an all-through school, for ages 3-18. Here he recalls a year of firsts, including the terror of giving his first infant assembly.

"Mr Haaarrrriiiissss", came the yells from the far side of the playground. Masses of children charged towards me, smiles on every little face telling me what they'd had for Christmas.

After 20 years of being used to a more subdued response from teenagers after the winter break, this typified the exciting journey I have been on in the past year.

What has led me to a point in my career where I have been persuaded to join a key stage 2 disco dressed as Pudsey Bear? Just a year ago, this experience was a faraway dream; now it feels as though Serlby Park has always been here.

Serlby Park serves an area of rural deprivation around the 'mothballed' Harworth Pit in north Nottinghamshire. It was formed in 2005 by the amalgamation of three schools: North Border Infant School, North Border Juniors and Bircotes and Harworth Community School.

This amazing marriage has only been possible due to the personal commitment of the leaders of all three schools and the very positive backing from the local authority and DfES Innovation Unit.

The link began when the three schools worked together to produce a response to the DfES pathfinder on extended schools.

Originally, it had been intended that we all work together on a single project. After hours of heated discussion it became clear that we each wanted something slightly different but we realised that our desire to achieve the best for the young people of the area was paramount.

This way of working has been the key to our success - realising that being one large unit does not mean that all parts have to be identical.

The three heads - myself (of Bircotes and Harworth), Gary Bott (head of the infant school) and Barry Shackley (head of the juniors) - were asked to share our experience of extended schools throughout the authority.

About the same time, the director of education, Pam Tulley, and the local authority floated the idea of looking at 'all-through' education somewhere in the county and sought our views.

The fact that all three of us responded positively led the authority to believe that this was a community worth looking at. All three schools were producing improving results individually and had very good reputations in the authority.

One-year countdown

Capital was to be released for buildings through a local PFI in 2008 or 2009, so we assumed this would be the timescale for the formation of a brand new 3-18 school. To our surprise in September 2004, assistant director Dave Wilson suggested a more immediate response.

His words, "3 to 18 is a concept and not a building", made us realise that we could be a 3-18 school before the building was ready. However, the suggestion that we could do this within a year was daunting.

My mind went into complete overdrive. I began to consider how leadership structures would develop, to worry about how budgets would work and became very focused on the details of management.

Luckily my insanity was diverted by Roy Leighton, co-presenter of BBC's The Confidence Lab, who was our enterprise adviser. He urged us to concentrate on our philosophy and ethos, leaving the practicalities to evolve.

Although we do not see Roy very often, his influence on us has been great and has given us the confidence to turn what could have been a mundane and unsuccessful amalgamation into something we believe is challenging the boundaries of education.

Roy introduced us to Barbara Prashnig's The Power of Diversity, a book which proved to be a very useful tool for focusing debate and a means of steering us away from a two-dimensional way of looking at joining the schools together.

Learning was positioned at the core of the school. It then became possible to start building the structures. It was agreed that I would lead the school as principal, deputy head Steve Geraghty would take on the role of head of secondary phase, with the other vice principals being Barry and Gary, each taking responsibility for their own phase.

It is quite clear that the whole process would have fallen apart at an early stage were it not for Barry and Gary's courage, selflessness and passion for pupil success. We were also lucky that the three governing bodies fully supported the plans.

Practicalities of governance

It was decided, in terms of structure and governance, to close the infant and junior schools and to extend the age range of the secondary. This could so easily have led to the belief that it was a secondary takeover, but the secondary governing body had deliberately run itself to its bare minimum to allow the new governing body to be extended to its maximum size.

An extraordinary one-off meeting of all three governing bodies decided the name and new uniform. The governors felt strongly that a new name should be chosen which would stop the idea of a takeover.

Initially there was an outcry from the community about the change of name to Serlby Park. It was

perceived that the school was trying to move away from its mining roots.

For me it was an interesting lesson in politics. There had been only one objection to the idea of forming the all-through school, but over 300 objections to the name!

However, creating a joint identity has been popular in the school. "I feel so important putting on my uniform," said one five year-old in his brand new blue jumper (one jumper was bought for every pupil).

Office staff also met and decided they would like a common uniform so that visitors to the different sites would see the link. We quickly developed a new logo, changed signs and put up posters with photographs of all staff members to establish our identity from the very first day of term.

A new email and telephone system was developed to improve communication between all sites, and for partnerships and friendships to develop across phases.

First infant assembly

You can imagine the trepidation with which I approached the first day. It started with the usual secondary assembly - I talk to the pupils about some spiritual or moral issue and they sit in silence, probably contemplating the hair of the person in front. Certainly at no point is there any interaction.

I focused on new starts and left feeling a job well done, confident in my own ability. This confidence was shaken 30 minutes later when I walked into the infant assembly of 200 5-7 year-olds.

Fear started to creep in as one of the pupils sitting on the floor at my feet started to move towards my shoes. "Hello, I'm Mr Harris", I said. "Hello, I'm George", "Hello, I'm Fred", "Hello, I'm Felicity, my mum's a nurse, and I've got a cat called Bert", came the responses.

With panic rising inside my stomach, I suddenly remembered the advice of Deryn Harvey, one of the directors of the DfES Innovation Unit: be positive, cheerful, never leave a gap and don't ask open-ended questions!

I rattled through my assembly and dashed to the junior assembly slightly ruffled. Just 20 minutes later the junior assembly was a lovely compromise; everyone sitting and listening intently and, the moment I finished, 30 hands raised, all wanting to ask questions.

I felt invigorated. I realised I had an awful lot to learn about the way young minds develop. If something as simple as an assembly could be so different across the phases then what about more important things like learning techniques?

I have spent an increasing amount of time in primary classrooms. The enthusiasm and the understanding of brain function amongst the staff and pupils strike me, as does the need for the secondary phase to build on this effectively.

Working across phases

Developments in the first term included pupil movement between the sites, including secondary pupils in the role of teachers and a variety of learning projects.

Steve Geraghty produced a timetable which enabled cross-phase work even in the first term. French for all key stage 2 students for two hours a week is delivered by secondary staff. There are also music, maths and citizenship lessons occurring in this way.

A year 3 teacher takes AS psychology, a year 5 teacher has ten periods of key stage 3/4 PE and a year 1 teacher is delivering some key stage 5 dance. It has been exciting watching staff and pupils grab opportunities to work together and to change the way they solve problems.

We offered bursaries of £200 for all staff for projects which increase cross-phase learning opportunities. So far we have had a blindfold challenge in PE, a kite making activity, a samba workshop, healthy tuck shop, radio station, super brain days and many others.

Watching an 18 year-old working side by side on drums with a 7 year-old really did show the strength of this kind of learning. A variety of teachers have paired up and are already sharing ideas across the age groups. When learning is made the centre of collaboration, no one phase dominates.

The introduction of TLRs has been eased by the very thoughtful support of Kelvin Peel, a consultant introduced to us via the Innovation Unit. We have developed a TLR system which is not secondary dominated but has a raft of cross phase TLR1 posts which put learning at the core.

The five key posts are: teaching and learning, lifelong learning, core skills, personal development, and independent learning/assessment for learning. The TLR2 posts will run subjects across all phases line managed by TLR1 staff. My role has become more strategic, ensuring the prominence of the heads of phase.

Almost every aspect of school life has changed. Nothing is straightforward and you are forced to look at the reasons for your work.

Sometimes at secondary level we can get lost in systems, in 'value added', and lose sight of why we do it. When approached by delighted little faces, I am reminded that we are in education to let those minds soar. I'm not suggesting that we have found all the answers, but I do think we have so far had a fascinating journey.

Dave Harris is principal of Serlby Park, a business and enterprise learning community for students age 3-18. He and consultant Kelvin Peel are co-ordinating a consortium of all-through schools (CATS) which is gradually developing its knowledge of the various routes of amalgamating or federating. Please contact him at d.harris@serlbypark.notts.sch.uk or visit www.serlbypark.notts.sch.uk to find out more.

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