Starting an All-Through school

 Starting an All-Through school.

Steve Hall has lead and taught in the state education sphere for nearly 37 years. During this time his responsibilities have ranged from assistant teacher of physical education to Head of Department. He began as a teacher at The City of Leeds Comprehensive School before moving to take up a position at The Meadway School in Reading. In 1983 he moved to Aylesbury where he became Head of Physical Education at The Sir Henry Floyd Grammar school and was subsequently appointed into the role of Head of Year. By 1989 he had reached the position of Director of PE, Sport and Recreation at the Bristnall Hall High School in the West Midlands. He stayed 12 years in this position, mainly because he enjoyed it so much before he began to look for senior leadership posts. He was subsequently appointed Deputy Head at Perry Beeches School in Birmingham before his appointment as Head teacher at the Aylesford School and Sixth Form College in 2005.

Education Magazine (EM)      How large a school is this, what’s the school’s background, staff headcount and when did it becomes an academy?

Steve Hall (SH)            The school was built in 1964 for 400 students, when I joined it we were at nearly 1000. We shrunk to 750 students for a while due to fewer children being in the area. The local area has been going through a steep demographic curve and so the number of local children is growing just as it is in the rest of the country. By 2020 we anticipate headcount will be up to 1200 pupils. We are a secondary school that converted to Academy status in 2012 and we have 61 full time members of staff.

EM       You’ve suddenly started to accept primary school pupils, what was the rationale behind this and what transpired to enable it to happen?

SH        This process began as a result of a basic needs assessment where the EFA granted Warwickshire an amount of money to provide extra places for primary school children in this area. The local plan was proceeding but for various reasons the local authority were not able to provide the required primary places for this area within their own facilities.  We were approached by the council because we are geographically very close to the centre of south Warwick where the need for primary school places is being created.

The process was a very fast one, we were asked in early 2014 if we would consider taking on a primary school provision for this area. We had to decide fairly quickly as the plan proposed that we needed to be ready to take pupils on in the autumn of 2015! We initially convened a governors’ meeting to discuss the councils proposal as taking this primary school on would eventually result in us becoming an ‘all through school’.

We also started talking about the ethos and culture of a Primary school within the existing school. How should we establish our ethos early and get that continuity of an education experience through the whole age range. This bought up issues like the ‘Right of passage’ where pupils move from one significant part of their educational life to another. We fully understood that smooth continuity is not for everybody and that idea of a transition appeals to many. We decided that pupils would still be ‘transitioning’ from a primary to a secondary school however here it would be a more seamless transition. There’s still going to be a rite of passage but we thought we could improve so as to provide a smoother and better experience for pupils. The argument against this mostly revolved around ‘we’ve always done it that way’ and in reality that is not a strong argument.  This was one of the many discussions we had internally and, for many other reasons, we went back to the local authority and said, “We want to work with you on this.”

EM       You had 12 to 18 months to create a brand new primary school within your existing grounds, what did you decide you wanted and how did you manage to achieve it? Many new build school designs are chosen centrally from a catalogue so were you just presented with a design and told that’s what you are getting, or did you have some input into the plans?

SH        We were very heavily involved in the design. If we were going to have an academy from 4-18 I wasn’t going to have an existing building that looked as if it had a new spaceship parked at the end of it. I stated from the outset that as we are a brick and cedar school and I wanted this new building to be built of brick and cedar so there was a physical continuity and seamless link to between the buildings. It was a bit of a challenge to realise this because the architects had some strong views of their own but through negotiation were able to achieve this.

Governor and staff representatives visited a school that was built in a similar style and design to the architects ideas and we decided that we didn’t like its style, or the position its shape demanded it would have to occupy on the present site. We had decided that it was not going to take any playing field by encroaching on pitch space and we had some very firm ideas of where we wanted it to go within the schools grounds.  We realised that the primary school would need some playing field space and as it was grass at the time there would need to be some (Section 77) playing field space conversion completed in order to realise it. However the powers that be in the local authority seemed to resolve the issues fairly quickly on our behalf.

To cut a long story short in November 2014 we had a prospective primary school pupils parents’ evening without a school to show them! We were asking parents with four year old children to commit to us and all we had was a really good model to show them and some plans pinned to the wall. Then we walked them out onto the grounds and said “This is where the primary school is going to be.” Not only were they buying into a school ‘off plan’, but they were buying into a thought process and ethos ‘off plan’ too! We knew we were asking for a large leap of faith!

EM       How long did it take to build the Primary school building? I’ve seen how schools are built with very little input from the school bodies themselves so how did you manage to get such a bespoke building?

SH        This was a challenging issue because there was a substantial cost element to it. We had a pot of money from the EFA as part of the basic needs package. We knew that there was a sum coming from the local authority (it actually had to go to Cabinet to be approved) so we knew there was somewhere in the region of £3 million but we never were involved in the overall cost decisions of the building.

I was able to influence the building design at an early stage in meetings with the architects. There was one clash over the entrance to the building. The roofing structure on the new entrance was quite difficult to realise and I created that difficulty because I wanted people to want to be attracted to come inside.  I also wanted the Head’s office on one side and the main reception the other side of the reception area. I also wanted the staffroom to be nearby. I wanted big, wide corridors and light, large breakout rooms. I believe the concept we eventually agreed on will be used by the architects in the future. It is a ‘two classroom’ concept with a shared entrance and facilities for each pair of classrooms. Off each of these entrances there are the cloakrooms and toilets, and then you have a classroom either side. Six of the classrooms are laid out like this. The seventh classroom is different because it is an ‘in and out’ flow arrangement where such young children can go outdoors into a secure play space as is part of the demands of Reception age children.

Designing was the hard part, building it was another issue as it is a very bespoke site. It was fenced off during the whole build and so there was no need, or chance for our secondary children to go through it. Running a school whilst building works are going on can be challenging but we were able to fence off the building area very neatly. I was able to visit the site regularly and track the foundations going in, the floors being laid, the steels going up and the interior walls being erected. Practical issues such as how different walls were reinforced in different ways because they took different weights because we wanted interactive TV’s as opposed to screens and projectors.

We looked at the potential disadvantages in the design requirements, for instance there are a number of important safeguarding issues around a primary school being within a secondary school as effectively it has to be a site within a site. So here there’s only one door that accesses from the secondary into the primary area and you need a security card and code to get through it.

Building costs were not within our remit however we did get heavily involved in how much it was going to cost to equip the facility. That responsibility was part of a contractual agreement between the SCAPE Group (a local authority owned built environment specialist), the designers and the local authority and it didn’t cost the academy a penny. However the academy owns the buildings and the equipment was all handed it over to us on completion.

EM       How have you decorated the rooms and did you buy all the equipment for the classes or will you do that as the school grows?

SH        We colour coded all the classes with a different coloured teaching wall for every class but neutral colours everywhere else. We did buy all the equipment for the Reception class and year 1 and put a long throw projector into the school hall; that’s the only IT we’ve put into for now.  We held off purchasing IT for the other years as technology develops so quickly and we wanted to purchase the right equipment for the children at the time. The local authority was going to hold onto the funds but we asked them for it to be advance and in return we promised to ring fence it solely for the purpose of IT equipment purchase in the future. I was worried that the local authority might not ring fence the funds going forward and it might not be available in future years if other funding issues arise.

EM       You have a lot of houses being built nearby so there is an advantage to there being a primary school here. When you asked the prospective pupils parents for feedback how did they respond? What were the alternatives for these parents if they didn’t start their children here? 

SH         The feedback was very good. We weren’t committed to build at the stage when we went to local parent consultation. We had said we liked the idea in principle but until we received the consultation feedback we didn’t really know what the issues could be for the community. Something that really mattered to us was that because a child was proposing to join the academy at age 4 they would not have to re-apply for a secondary school place as the child was already part of the academy.

We had very few responses that were negative and the concerns were mostly around the transitional period between schools. We had explained how we might avoid a conflict or problem with transition and in light of the positive responses we moved forward with the plan.  I’m not sure what the alternative for parents would have been had we said no; the other primary schools would have been significantly oversubscribed. The local authority had said if provision wasn’t made there’d probably be half a class down on requirement in the local area. That’s proved to be the case because we had 16 pupils starting this year. Though we are an academy it is very much a partnership with the local authority in terms of provision of spaces with the academy providing those spaces.

EM       You now have 16 Reception Year pupils in a primary school that’s been built for 210. What’s it like for them and the staff to be ‘rattling around’ in all that space with no older kids about to relate to and interact with?

SH        I was slightly concerned that they would always be the oldest children in their school, however we’ve formed a strong and important partnership with Ferncumbe Primary School. We have become involved in their Forest School initiative. Our 16 children are bussed out to them every Tuesday, as on the other school’s doorstep they have a little forest that it can be used as an outside area, our 16 pupils mix with their pupils in that environment. There is no feeling of isolation, they get the peer mixing experience but still have access to this secondary school’s facilities. The Primary teacher’s job is to be in the classroom most of the time, so for her it’s a case of overcoming the isolation that could be felt during a break or lunchtime within the small team that operate in the Primary buildings.

EM       How many teachers have you that are designated as primary school teachers?

SH        At present we have one primary school teacher and two TAs that also cover breakfast club and after school club. They are also supported by work experience students from our Sixth Form. We are recruiting another teacher and another Teaching Assistant for next year and will continue to use our agreement with Ferncumbe School who are working with us to provide teachers. We are paying them to provide the teachers at the moment as a contractor. Next year we are looking to the academy to take on the Reception teachers’ contract directly so she will come under the direct employment of the academy. The new teacher will go into the Year One class and will remain with Ferncumbe for 12 months. Another consideration we had to make was is training and development of the primary staff so we now work closely with the other primary schools in the area.

EM       What advantages are there to the Secondary school in having a primary within its grounds?

SH        We explored some of these when we were in the process of making the decision as there are real advantages of an all-through school for the secondary sector. For instance, we can provide work experience for our 6th form students so pupils who may be interested in primary teaching as a career. We have ‘year 7 buddies’ that have linked with the reception class. They get some real hands on experience. We’re going to be able to put teachers into Year 6 who know more about what the Secondary curriculum looks like. We will know each student who moves up to a greater degree. A significant advantage is that we can establish a single ethos and culture that permeates the school across the full age range 4-18 in the fullness of time.

EM       What sort of real economies of scale will you realise when you cater for the primary school when it’s at full capacity and what other economies do you anticipate you will realise?

SH        We have very good catering facilities here and have the spare capacity to cope with the increased in numbers and variety of diets.  Our catering team do primary lunches for 12 o’clock and secondary meals straight at 1.20pm. We will have both operations under one roof and so obtain substantial economies of scale. We will have only one school business manager, one finance team; one Human Resources, one insurance policy. We also run a school uniform shop here so as we will have the same uniform for age 4 to18, there are no anticipated problems in any business area. We expect that as the volume of pupils increase the greater range of overall savings can be made. The economies of scale across all our business contracts, from cleaning to ground maintenance, makes an even more convincing argument for the all-through concept.

EM       Do you have only one entrance to the school for all pupils?

SH        We had two but have now made only one accessible to cars. A significant number of pupils come in from a pick up and drop off zone at the other side of the school. We have buses at the front, drop off / pick up and walkers. Access to the Primary School was a well-rehearsed question earlier on in the process but you could go around a lot of existing secondary schools and see far worse access than ours which appears generous in comparison! The car park at the front of the school houses about 130 places, there are set down bays for six double-decker buses, and then we have pedestrian access and additional parking for 50 cars round the back of the school as well. We were confident we could accommodate access for the additional numbers and by a variety of travel arrangements

EM       Do demographic forecasts actually indicate that you are going to have a full complement of 210 pupils in the Primary school unit? Why you have only taken in a Reception class, is there not the demand for older primary children to be taught here right now?

SH        The demographic forecasts show the school will be full, that’s seven classes (Reception, 1-6) but this is the first year of intake. It is going to be 2021 before the final class has gone into Reception and everybody else has moved through the school and it will then be ‘full’.  One of the reasons we went for the ‘slow burn and build’ approach to classes was the politics of the situation. We have two primary schools situated very close to us and we don’t want to be in competition with people and schools we work closely with. If we had a younger sibling joining us next year, and there was an older sibling somewhere else and the parents said that they wanted them both here that’s reasonable. What I didn’t want was people wanting to move children into Year 2 or beyond because this could be destabilising for other schools in the area.

EM       What were the issues and problems that you didn’t see coming, and how did you deal with them?

SH        I haven’t seen many real insurmountable problems but then, that’s probably my approach to life. The issues for me were about getting what we wanted on time, with the right  appearance and being fit for purpose. The build programme has occupied our minds since last December. Some of the ICT we would have done differently but things have moved so rapidly it’s been very hard work to stay abreast of all the strands and I am sure we will look back and do certain things differently as in any major project.

There were not many insurmountable problems that have risen yet because we’ve done all this in partnership with experienced professionals. One of the things that became apparent early on was that as I have been working with secondary schools my entire career I don’t know much about primary education. To resolve this we found an expert, the Head of a Primary School and she now have the title of ‘Director of Primary Education’ for our academy. She shares her time in the academy with her existing heads role. We had to work closely with the governors of her primary school to come up with a contractual arrangement which works, and it is unique! We’re not federated to one another and we are not part of a multi academy trust; we’re just working in a partnership with another school in what you would call a ‘local agreement’.

EM       You have gone back to the old days where you cooperate with the school next door. Under the academy system they thought that they would stop that as you are in almost autonomous siloes, that’s not the case then?

SH        Schools cannot work in isolation. We are an academy and we can do things much more quickly because of it. That is one of the strengths of the academy system but it doesn’t stop you working with other people and schools to get a mutually beneficial result. Indeed I think partnership working is essential in moving forward any organisation .

EM       Do you think other secondary schools will follow your example? This model has been in the independent school sector already hasn’t it with Prep and Public schools?

SH        I know at least two other schools in central Warwickshire who are looking at this model as an example that they would like to follow.   We did look at a similar model in Northamptonshire and spoke to the teacher in charge to see how it works, however it was built from scratch as an all-through school. This hasn’t been; this is a secondary school with a primary school built on site and so becoming an all-through school. Regarding the private sector it isn’t a new model. However in the state sector it is a relatively new. I think we’re the 70th or so state school in the UK to follow this path.

EM       What’s the effect of the new school beginning having on your staff?

SH        I think the staff body have been very interested in it as a concept, however most of them have not been directly affected yet. They were intrigued initially and they also see it as evidence of the school moving forward. Not everybody thought it was a great idea but the fact that we were doing something different was engaging to them. As time moves on and the transitional years come closer there will be greater awareness of the possibilities.

EM       In five years’ time your secondary school is going to have to grow in numbers as a result of the intake from the new primary school pupils ‘coming up’ adding to the usual intake from the local Primary schools. What does that mean for the secondary school numbers and the ability to satisfy the local demand?

SH        When I came to the school I was told that a building project called the Chase Meadow estate was going to be fully built by 2007. This school had received Section 106 money to build in advance and had built a 16 class extension block. Chase Meadow was not built out due to the building industry recession until 2015, so now technically we are operating below capacity. Projection forecasts indicate the Secondary School will be at capacity by 2020. With the Primary school full our capacity will be just over 1300 and I am not expecting to go above that in the foreseeable future.

EM       Thank you for talking to Education Magazine.

Proposed to run alongside:

AYLESFORD School in Warwick has become one of the first combined primary and secondary school in the county, thanks to a scheme delivered by Ashe Construction, through the empa (East Midlands Property Alliance) framework and Scape Design following a £2.7 million investment from Warwickshire County Council.

The collaboration between Ashe, Scape Design and the empa framework ensured that the state-of-the-art facilities were completed ahead of schedule without any post-build concerns.

Aylesford head teacher, Steve Hall said: “The partnership between the construction and design teams has been extremely successful. They have been very helpful and positive throughout all phases of the build helping to make everything run efficiently with no concerns.

“The teachers and school governors are extremely happy and we are all delighted with the quality of the work and the finished product. We have been able to accept the new primary school intake at the start of September with confidence, allowing 16 new students to join us in the reception classes. The amount of interest for next year is huge.”

Warwickshire County Council's design and major projects manager, Gordon O'Dell, said: "Aylesford School is the first all-through primary and secondary school in Warwickshire, which addresses the increasing numbers of pupils as part of the Government's targeted basic need programme.

“The design and construction works for the new primary building were delivered to tight time-scales, which was successfully done through partnership working between the Council, Scape and Ashe Construction." 

Ashe Construction’s site manager, Rob Slack, said: “It was a great project to be part of and the construction works went extremely well, finishing two weeks ahead of schedule.

“We ensured that we had a great working relationship with all parties involved throughout the process, which helped us work to budget and on time without impacting on the academy’s day to day operations.

“It is very exciting for the school to be able to offer continuous education from the age of four to 18. We’re delighted with the finished project and were thrilled to see the smiles on the faces of the students and their teachers when they saw the new buildings for the first time at the start of the new term.”

Head of empa, Alan Coole, added: “This is a significant project that will benefit hundreds of school children in Warwickshire. The expansion has not only created new facilities for learning, but has met the needs of the community by providing much-needed school places in line with the area’s needs.

“We are delighted with the work that Ashe Construction has achieved through the empa framework that was completed ahead of schedule and in budget, so the school children could start the new term in their state of the art new buildings.”

Ashe worked collaboratively with Scape Design from the outset on this Design and Build project at Aylesford School in order to achieve a quick design period. 

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