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When it’s not working right, we face it and fix it

Graham Quinn, Executive Principal, New Bridge Group, Oldham, writes…

New Bridge School, Oldham, opened just over 10 years ago when three existing special schools merged into a new build, generic secondary school. We opened with 261 pupils and students – and a clear view from the local authority that the numbers would reduce and stabilise over time (yeah, right!) as a result of more ‘inclusion’ into mainstream schools.

We met with all our stakeholders, the largest school consultation Oldham had ever undertaken, and agreed three clear strategic intents:

  • to develop a school that places itself at the heart of the community and values the contribution of every individual
  • to offer all pupils and students access to the highest quality facilities and excellent staff
  • to offer all young people an extended school year through the development of holiday clubs and before/after school activities.

The local authority and the school agreed that the outcomes for all our young people had to improve. Our shared vision was less concerned with Ofsted categories but with improving the life chances of our young people and their families.

48-week school year

We were clear from the outset that if we were asked to design a school system and had a blank sheet of paper, very few people would design a 39-week academic year with 13 weeks holiday! Our offer was designed around opening the school for 48 weeks a year; and with our community using our buildings and facilities on a regular basis.

We started to introduce full-year contracts for staff. We ensured teaching staff could benefit from flexible working systems of TOIL (time off in lieu), and we redesigned our workforce accordingly. We actively employed local people who shared our vision and promoted a ‘grow your own’ culture that accepted we would support every individual on their own professional development journey.

A curriculum for our young people

We ensured the curriculum was designed with our children and young people in mind. Who can forget the national curriculum debates? Our curriculum has since evolved to include different pathways, work immersion and an emphasis on life skills.

We encountered many challenges at the outset and, interestingly, still do now. In our formative years, some colleagues struggled with meeting the wide range of needs of the young people they were being asked to teach. We didn’t manage this particularly well and expected staff to miraculously adapt, when what we should have done was to offer structured training packages. This led to some difficult situations with staff.

The right staff with the right young people

We now take a slightly different view, which accepts that staff may only work with certain groups of young people – the right staff, with the right young people, in the right places.

As a school with widespread buildings, we also struggled with communication. Many schools have quick daily briefings, but logistically this proved impossible. Communication still presents a challenge, but our investment in electronic solutions (blogs, Twitter, Facebook, intranet) is starting to pay dividends.

Life skills assessed regularly

We ensure that all the children and young people are assessed twice a year in relation to both their academic progress and their ‘learning for life’ skills. We have spent a huge amount of time and energy trying to unpick what we have called ‘measuring the immeasurable’. We now, as a matter of routine, measure our collective effectiveness in all the ‘softer areas’ of school life and extracurricular activities.

The last 10 years have been a time of significant change for schools. We’ve always been open to exploring each new developments – specialist colleges, diploma strands, BSF, academy status, multi-academy trusts, studio schools, teaching schools and free schools to name just a few. We have evaluated each initiative with a view as to its potential impact on our children and young people.

Seeking out best practice here and abroad

We have learnt from others. We have actively sought out best practice, both from across this country and, occasionally, internationally. We know we need to work in partnership and co-construct the provision with our other local authority partners. New Bridge staff have relied massively on the support from our colleagues across the country.

We know too that we are still very much on our journey. We have made many mistakes. We face criticism from others. We do our best to be as open and honest as possible. In line with other schools in the SSAT network, we welcome visits and enthusiastically share all our work.

Our children and young people continue to be at the heart of everything we do. What we will never do is dilute our ambitions for the 800 children and young people in our five schools and post-19 organisations.

New Bridge School is one of the many schools hosting an event in SSAT’s Leading Outstanding Special Schools programme. Bookings open shortly and the programme launches in autumn 2017. Register your interest via email.


 

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