Thursday, 31 May 2012

Sandymoor School continues to grow

The first thing to talk about this week is the fact that we have just received our school number from the Department for Education. This is a really important milestone as it means that we are now registered officially as an education establishment – our DfE number is used for all sorts of things, like student record transfers, ordering education-specific items, exam entries, etc.

Then we also made use of the lovely weather to do a photo shoot with our school uniform. I think it looks lovely and is exactly what I had in mind; a uniform to provide the right mind-set to learn, without being to prescriptive or expensive. I think the students look lovely in it and they certainly enjoyed being part of the shoot too!

The year 8 enrolment continues at a pace too and I am responding to requests to discuss transfer into our year 8 cohort all the time now. It’s exciting to be able to offer the Sandymoor experience to another year group.

Also, over the last two weeks, I’ve been involved in interviewing some amazing professionals, all of whom wanted to be part of the Sandymoor vision. Thank you to everyone who was part of the interview process as well; the students in the primary schools where we carried out lesson observations and the parents involved in the parental panels. It’s not been only me who has been impressed by the candidates; the students reported that the teachers were very good and this comment from one of the parents reflects a lot of the feedback I received:

“Many thanks for involving the parents in the interview process over the last few days.  This has been really enjoyable and I hope of benefit to you in making your decisions.  I am extremely encouraged.  As we discussed, the applicants have been outstanding.”

It was very hard, in the end, to make some of the decisions, because the candidates were all of such high quality, but after much discussion, we have now got our full team. In time, their details, along with photos, will appear on the website, but to start with, here’s a brief piece about each one. There will also be many opportunities for everyone to meet them and get to see why I am so excited to be leading such a talented team:

Emma Simpson. Assistant Head & Maths.
Emma joins us from the Whitby High School, where she is the Assistant Faculty Leader for Mathematics. She has a degree in Mathematics from UMIST and holds a Postgraduate Certificate in Coaching. Part of her role at present also involves working with teachers working towards their Masters in Teaching & Learning higher degrees. As assistant Head, Emma will be responsible specifically for staff development and working with me to ensure we work together as a team to build a unique experience for the students.

Sarah O’Hanlon. Head of Learning Support (SENCO) & English.
Sarah is currently at the University Church of England Academy, Ellesmere Port. She has also been English Curriculum Leader at Al Yasmina British International School, Abu Dhabi, where she joined the school at its inception, building the department as the school grew in the same way Sandymoor will. Sarah has extensive experience at using data to identify and support students achieve their personal targets and will take the lead in developing the Individual Development Plans for each student. Sarah also is a qualified TELF teacher and will focus on Literacy across the whole school.
Along with the Business and Finance Manager, Emma & Sarah will be my Senior Leadership Team in the first instance.

Joanne John-Lewis. Humanities
Joanne is currently Curriculum Leader for RE, PSHE & citizenship at the Manchester Academy and has previously lead History and Law. With a degree in Law, a Teaching Certificate in Latin and a Masters Degree in Education, Joanne brings a huge wealth of experience to Sandymoor Joanne will be taking a lead in the Community Engagement lessons as well as delivering the Humanities element of the Sandymoor curriculum.

Brenda Mooney. Art and Technology
Brenda has a huge breadth of experience in education, having been both a Head of Faculty for Technology in Shropshire and a consultant / Advisor for Technology (including ICT) in the Wirral and Liverpool. She has qualifications in Art, Design and Technology as well as working on a Masters Degree specifically focussing on Inclusion. Brenda also has a specific interest and expertise in Special Educational Needs, specifically Aspergers, Dyslexia and Dyspraxia.

Rubén Medina Llobregat. Spanish.
As a native of Spain (Alicante), Ruben brings a passion for his language to Sandymoor that shone through at interview (He even received a round of applause by the students he delivered his lesson to!). Currently completing his PGCE in Liverpool, Ruben has taught at the Belvedere Academy and Woodchurch High School. Rubén brings with him an enthusiasm and passion that impressed everyone who interviewed him.

We now focus on recruiting the non-teaching staff to join our team. We were impressed by the number and quality of teachers who applied and all the non-teaching posts have also attracted large numbers of high quality people wanting to join Sandymoor.

With such a team around me, I know that the Sandymoor experience the students engage in will be second to none – a truly outstanding school, with outstanding professionals determined to do things differently, with the individual student at the heart of everything we do.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Another milestone

Last week was an exciting time as we were interviewing for our first teachers to join the school! I have been very determined that the process would be thorough and rigorous, but also enjoyable (or as enjoyable as possible for the candidates...!). If Sandymoor is going to be outstanding, then we need to make sure that every aspect is outstanding and this includes, for me, the process of selecting staff.

Last week, we interviewed five exceptional teachers for two posts. This followed a detailed selection process, where we had to shortlist from 25 applications for just these posts. As an aside, there are two things that I've realised through this process; first that there is a lot of amazing talent out there in the education profession - every application we received was a strong one, and secondly, how much of a passion there is to have the opportunity to be involved in real education from the beginning. I have really had my faith in my profession re-affirmed.

After shortlisting, we then had to ensure that we would be able to find the best candidates through the interview process. This, for me, had to include seeing them in front of students as it's that rapport with young people you can't test any other way. I am extremely grateful to Daresbury Primary School for lending us one of their classes for this process! Over two mornings, each candidate had to deliver a brief micro-lesson on a topic around skills for learning & each candidate rose to the challenge! In fact the class teacher (who observed each lesson with me) said how impressed she was with quality & variety of the lessons, saying that I had a difficult choice to make, because they were so good.

Then we visited Sandymoor, so that they could see where the school will be. This was important and I remember visiting the sites when I was interviewed & the impact it had; the location, in the heart of the community, is just right. And we were blessed with good weather, which helped...

After lunch, the serious business then began, with a formal interview and various tasks to test different aspects of the jobs. This included a presentation to a group of parents (on a topic they were only given 1/2 hour earlier) - the inclusion of every element of the school's community is important and thank you to the parents who took part.

Through all this, we also gave the candidates time to talk and ask questions; I believe it's so important to give candidates time to feel the ethos and see if they want to be part of it - Sandymoor School is so much more than a job & I wanted to give time for them to understand that.

And then decision time. It was a hard choice, but because all the candidates were so good. However, there were two candidates who stood out and we are very pleased that they both said yes. I would like to thank the other candidates, who put a huge effort into the process and showed themselves to be outstanding professionals. I would consider it a privilege to work with any of them. It was hard to break bad news to them.

But now we are three! Joining me, delivering the science at first, is Emma Simpson, Assistant Head and Maths, and Sarah O'Hanlon, SENCO / learning support and English. We will put more details about them on the website soon, but here's a brief biography of each:

Emma Simpson comes to Sandymoor with 14 years of teaching experience behind her, a degree in Maths from UMIST, Manchester and further qualifications in coaching & mentoring. She will take on responsibility for ensuring the quality of our curriculum is outstanding and work with me to develop all our staff procedures.

Sarah O'Hanlon joins us with 6 years of teaching experience and a degree in English Studies from Manchester Metropolitan University. She has travelled widely, teaching in both Japan and Abu Dhabi, where she joined a school that, like Sandymoor, was starting from scratch. Sarah will take responsibility for student monitoring and the personalisation of the curriculum.

I know that both Emma & Sarah are keen to be introduced to the community and I will be working with them to arrange a number of events for them to meet everyone.

Looking ahead, we are interviewing for the remaining teaching posts this week; Humanities, Spanish, Art & Technology.  Again, we had over 50 applicants for these posts and have shortlisted an outstanding set of candidates. They will go through a similar process and I wish them all the very best of luck - I am excited to meet them all. We are also finalising the interview processes for all remaining posts, and will have the full team by the end of June.

We are also going to be on national radio: if you can, listen into Women's Hour this Tuesday, where they are doing an article on Free Schools and Sandymoor is the example they are discussing!

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Preparing Students for the Future

I’ve been incensed by the headlines in the news recently about school leavers not having the skills necessary to go into the workplace. For example, Companies ‘pick up the pieces’ of school failure, or Children being failed by GCSE exam system. But not for the reasons most teachers might say for being outraged.

I am outraged because these children are being let down.

Every child only goes through school once and that is why I am determined that Sandymoor will be outstanding from day 1.

Now, I don’t believe that the only point of education is to provide fodder for industry; that was thought to be the point of education in the 19th century, but we are in the 21st century and our education has to adapt to that. The Sandymoor curriculum is designed to empower the students that go through it, giving them the skills to be reflective learners, able to adapt to new situations and take on new skills throughout their entire life. To be change agents in the world. And this is embedded throughout the school structures.

On entry to the school, each student will take a set of diagnostic tests to identify how they learn, their strengths and weaknesses and any specific learning issues they may have. They well then have an interview with their personal tutor or a senior member of the school, where the results will be discussed and explained to the student. Also in this interview, each student’s individual likes and dislikes will be explored, along with their aspirations, hopes and dreams. This all forms the beginning of the student’s Individual Development Plan, which will grow with the student as they go through the school.

Following this, each individual will then be paired up with an outside adult, someone in the local or regional community who is in business, or works in an enterprising environment. And will be in some way linked to the student’s hopes or dreams. This person will be the Business & Enterprise Mentor and will be in school regularly (roughly every couple of weeks) for mentoring sessions with their mentees. This is where the student has the opportunity to develop the ‘soft’ skills required in the real world and explore how they will become successful in whatever they want to do. These sessions will be recorded in the IDP as well.

In school, the student’s academic tutor will be monitoring their progress against subject targets, whilst their personal tutor will be working with them to develop the interpersonal skills as well as the reflective, creative skills so necessary in today’s world.

Thorough out the first two years (years 7 & 8), the students will follow a curriculum that covers all of the national curriculum requirements, but does so in an integrated way. They will have specialist teachers delivering their subjects (as aspiration and passion is essential in the classroom from the teacher), but there will be over-arching topics that thread the whole school together. These topics will also form the basis of the community engagement lessons, where the focus is on demonstrating the relevance of the subjects and topics to the real world by engaging with the real world.

I am challenging companies to get into schools in this way, rather than ‘pick up the pieces’ when the students have left. I am aware that most secondary schools can’t accommodate this, but here at Sandymoor we can & will be doing this.

Looking ahead, I do agree that GCSEs can let students down. If the school teaches just to pass the test. By nature, GCSE exams examine what it is possible to test on, which tends to be very strictly defined knowledge regurgitation and so schools have evolved into producing this sort of student.
From the age of 14, through to 18, at Sandymoor, each student will follow a ‘pathway’ tailored to provide the qualifications that student needs to go into the profession they are wanting to, but also ensuring the focus is as firmly on the skills as on the knowledge. A Sandymoor student will already, through the first two years, have these skills, but they will continue to be valued and nurtured as they progress through the school.

And the development of the Business and Enterprise Mentor scheme will be crucial here, with the students then having the opportunity to engage with their mentor in their workspace. Not a traditional work experience model, where a teenager visits a place of work and makes tea for most of the time, because that relationship will already be there.

Sandymoor’s pathway approach to post-14 education will stop the focus on the damage GCSE cramming can do & help the student see themselves as on a journey, with the pathway to 18 as the start of their life-long journey. In this way, Sandymoor school has a number of the elements the government and industries are saying are a strength of the new University Technical Colleges (UTCs).

Sandymoor Students will be highly employable, highly creative and fully in possession of all the skills needed not just for today’s workplace, but the workplaces of tomorrow as well.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Everything Happening At Once

It’s been almost two weeks since I last had time to write and so much has happened (which is why I’ve not had time to write!), so this will be a highlight post, touching on some of the exciting things that have happened recently.

Last week, with the closing date looming for the teaching posts, started out hectic as I received loads of calls and emails asking for more information about the school. As I am determined that Sandymoor School will be known as a friendly, approachable school, I offered to meet up with anyone who asked for further information, so I spent a bit of time sitting in coffee shops around doing what is now my favourite activity; talking about how amazing Sandymoor School is!

In the end, we had well in excess of 100 applications for the teaching posts advertised and have selected a very strong field for the interviews; I am convinced that I will have a fantastic team of inspirational educators with me to provide the Sandymoor Experience. I look forward to introducing them to everyone, through this blog, the website and face to face meetings as soon as we’ve finished appointing.

The recruitment process has been designed to be thorough and allow us to explore what each individual can bring to the team. I would like to publicly thank the primary schools who have volunteered to help out by providing classrooms and children for us; as part of the process, I was determined that I wanted to watch each candidate interact with students and this is going to be an important part of their selection. They will also have to undergo interviews and give presentations, so it will be a tiring day for them.

A highlight of last week, though, was a visit down to London; I had been invited to talk at a national conference called “Building Future Education”. We were VIP guests, which was exciting – we had access to a quiet area with free coffee …. And had the opportunity to talk with a number of major building contractors who are very keen to engage with us over the new build.

Out of this came a contact with the potential to be on Radio 4’s Women’s Hour, as part of a feature about free schools; two of the project group were interviewed for the best part of an evening by one of their reporters and it’s scheduled to go out on air on the 29th May – listen out for it, if you can!

From there, while down, we popped into the Houses of Parliament, to meet up with the local MP, Graham Evans, to catch up and give some feedback as to the progress; it’s really good to have his support.

We’ve also been having further enquiries about places for students in September, which is fantastic, and I’ve also been spending time visiting parents and young people in their homes, talking about the Sandymoor curriculum. It’s been so good to meet with people and talk through their concerns, showing them that Sandymoor will provide outstanding education from the very start. One thing we’ve been discussing hard has come about as a result of these requests, and resulted in me driving over to DfE regional offices in Sheffield to discuss and agree. . . 

We are, as a result of parental requests, opening up a year 8 group from this September as well… If you have a child currently in year 7 who isn’t that happy with where they are (or know someone who has), I’m happy to talk about how it will work.

All in all, a hectic time, but so enjoyable!

Monday, 7 May 2012

Progress Continues

The plans for the temporary school are completely firmed up (and you can view them on the school's website) and the planning process is well underway. If you look at the plans, you will see that we have everything planned for our students to experience a full curriculum right from day 1. There's 'ordinary' classrooms, as well as a science lab and technology room; we also have a dinning and assembly space (which will also double up as an indoor area for PE). But there's also space for 'break-out' sessions. These are where small groups of students and individuals will meet to work through the more personalised aspects of their curriculum. . . not every lesson will be spent in a classroom with a whole class because doing things that way, although easier for the school to organise, does not help the individuals make the learning their own.

I've written already about the pastoral and mentoring support that will make Sandymoor unique, but the academic curriculum will also be unique as we will never treat students like products in a factory, where the 'date of manufacture' is the most important thing about them.

In the background, I'm working on the school's education brief; a weighty document that sets out how the school will cover all the legal requirements of the department for education. This document is ready to go off to them, but in doing it, I realised that it doesn't ask for what I consider the most important part of the whole thing, the 'how' of the delivery. I've prepared the outline of the school day, detailed how many lessons per subject and gone into detail about policies on ICT and the like, but couldn't help but include details about the how as well.

With every student known as an individual, it will be crucial that there is time for each student to engage with their learning as an individual. Here we have one of my big bug-bears and that's that most schools focus more on the teaching than on the learning. The teacher, seen as the sage, controlling the flow of knowledge into the students in front of them. This takes power away from the student and puts it firmly into the teacher and this leads to the student wondering why they go to school. The ethos of Sandymoor School will be the exact opposite, with the teacher acting as guide and support to the students. This means that the student is more in control and so enjoys the process. It also means that the education is more organic and evolves with the student.

Time in the classroom should be active, should involve the student asking questions and forming their opinions about the topics being discussed. Learning should be collaborative, with students working in groups to solve problems. This is what happens in the 'real world', so why not in school? It certainly will be what happens at Sandymoor.

Over the next few weeks, I will be short listing and interviewing staff to join me in September. This is going to be a huge task, not least due to the number of applications we are receiving, but also because of the importance to it - I will only want the best teachers joining me, teachers who share my passion for working with young people not seeing them as products to 'do' education to. I am working with a retired head who is helping me shortlist and will interview with me. I'm also very grateful for three of the local primary schools who have offered their classrooms and students so that we can observe the candidates in front of students. And I hope to be able to share with you the Sandymoor teachers by the end of May, so watch this space for that exciting news!

Also, like I've said, I will be posting out to parents/guardians who have registered their child(ren) a letter explaining how the transition will work, with me visiting each student in their primary school, talking to them and their class teacher. I will also be asking to meet each parent/guardian, so I can explain how Sandymoor will work and answer any questions. I know that everyone has busy lives, but I am hoping that people will be willing to meet me; I am more than happy to visit in an evening, in the family home. I believe the link with parents is so important in making the process work, everyone working in partnership to make the best experience possible for the young people. This is something I think we've let slip in the west - when I was in Tanzania, working with the Maassi, the way everyone in the community works to support the children is a lesson we could all learn and is why I am so dedicated in my pursuit of getting everyone involved in the mentoring and support of Sandymoor School's students.