Alison Thomas

07947 060 130

Starting from scratch

They say it is lonely at the top and that was certainly true for Dave Baker last year when he was appointed headteacher of Bradley Stoke Community School, South Gloucestershire. "I have no buildings, no colleagues, no students and only a speculative prospectus. But you want to send your children to my school!" he told year 6 parents from the sprawling new town on the edge of Bristol. Those who had faith are now reaping the rewards. Construction finished on time and in September 2005 a sparkling new 11-16 comprehensive opened its doors. Today 180 year 7 pupils are enjoying state-of-the-art facilities in an attractive environment and their learning is directed by a small team selected for their pioneering spirit.

So what is it like to set up an establishment from scratch? "Very exciting and slightly scary," he says. "There is so much to think of, you can't help wondering, what if? What have I forgotten?" It was all the more daunting as he spent the autumn term juggling his responsibilities as deputy head of a nearby school with the demands of his new post. He attended site visits, collaborated with governors and began negotiating funding arrangements, for it was 27 years since the local authority had opened a new secondary school and there was no established protocol. He also visited new schools elsewhere to draw on their experience and made initial contact with furniture manufacturers. Establishing links with local people, schools and other organisations was another priority. As its name implies, Bradley Stoke Community School is not just for teenagers and has been created to provide a focus for all that goes on in the town.

"It's no coincidence that we're next door to the leisure centre and we're open until 10pm for community use," he explains. "For example, we have a wonderful hall with retractable tiered seating and a sophisticated light and sound system. Bradley Stoke has been crying out for a decent venue for the performing arts for years. Now it has one." The relentless pace continued when he started in post in January 2005, but at least he now had the support of a personal assistant. He had already developed a few ideas on the curriculum and these were honed and refined when he was joined by three assistant heads at Easter. At first glance they have opted for a traditional model but underpinning it is an emphasis on learning to learn, thinking skills, emotional literacy and personalised learning. "It's a question of balance," he explains. "On the one hand parents don't want their children to be guinea pigs, on the other this is an opportunity to be innovative. Running through the curriculum are strands which will provide a sound base for development in the future."

The emphasis on independent and personalised learning is reflected in the decision to invest in cutting-edge information and communications technology facilities. Not only is there an interactive whiteboard in every classroom, but a sophisticated hard-wired and wireless infrastructure will allow for the development of intranet, extranet and virtual learning environments that can be accessed from home by students, parents and other stakeholders. On a more prosaic note, fixtures and fittings have taken up much more time than he would ever have imagined. From lockers to crockery, from computers to desks, everything had to be sourced, costed, ordered, unpacked and put into place. "There's nothing I don't know about furniture. My wife says I'm very boring!" he laughs. In particular, he is an expert on chairs. "We asked lots of companies to send samples and everyone tried them out, including the children. Comfort and back-support are important," he explains.

Helping to choose furniture has been just one of many contributions from the students. Together with their parents they have been consulted on issues such as uniform, the school logo, discipline and the structure of the school day. "We've gone for an early start, because many parents work and since the roads around here are gridlocked every morning, they like to get away by eight," he says. School finishes early too, but pupils can stay on until 5pm under supervision in the learning resource centre and many do. There are also enrichment activities every Monday afternoon and on several days after school. Some of these are provided by local clubs and associations, who receive reduced letting fees for the schools' excellent facilities in return. "It's all about relationships and partnerships and for the clubs concerned it's a good way of raising interest and recruiting future members," he explains.

Other enrichment activities are run by staff, teaching and non-teaching alike, for he is keen to foster teamwork and include everyone in the life of the school. "I feel strongly that I don't want a rigid hierarchy. It's part of our ethos that students respect all adults and vice versa," he says. For the same reason, he has gone for a relatively flat staffing structure and besides his three assistant heads and two advanced skills teachers, there are no responsibility allowances. "I didn't want to commit to a structure too early. It's like the building. You look at the plans, but it's only when you're in it that you see how it works and how it doesn't," he explains.

When appointing staff, the leadership team were looking for special attributes. Firstly, initiative and independence, for they would have to set up and run their curriculum area alone. A pioneering mentality was also important, as was an interest in working closely with the local community. And, of course, they had to have empathy with young people. Every candidate taught a lesson in a primary school and children's feedback informed the final decision. Another way of involving children in decision-making has been to set up a student council, comprising a boy and a girl from all the main feeder schools and a single representative from each of the others. They meet regularly with the leadership team to discuss matters that affect them directly and provide insight into life on the other side of the desk. Their views on rewards and sanctions were taken into account before the behaviour policy was finalised. Transition for future generations of year 6 has been another issue on the agenda.

Their own transition was managed in a variety of ways. One of these was to introduce them to specialist BSCS staff, who helped them to produce artwork and colourful textiles, which now adorn the walls of the secondary school. Another was a special induction day followed by a social evening, when parents joined their children for a barbecue and toured the school for the first time. This event took place on July 12, a mere 24 hours after Dave and his team moved into the building. As luck would have it, his home life was also in turmoil at the time. On July 8 he moved house.

The frenzy did not end with the arrival of the summer holidays, far from it, and he pays tribute to his staff, especially his PA and the business and premises managers, who rolled up their sleeves day in, day out as deliveries poured in. "It was completely mad," he says. "Apart from a two-week break in Cornwall, I was here every day from 7.30 until at least 1.30. Then I went home to my paintbrush!" The hard work paid off, and September came and went with only a few minor teething problems. Time now to consolidate and plan for the future. "At the moment everything is new and we're developing a positive ethos and learning culture with a small staff and a single year group, all pioneers together," he says. "As the school grows, it will become more difficult to keep everyone involved but we're determined to do it."

They are also considering the possibility of post-16 provision in partnership with other local schools and colleges. Meanwhile preparations are already underway to apply for specialist school status in performing arts and languages. "When the town council did an audit on gaps in local provision, drama leapt off the page," he says. "As for languages, local primary schools are desperate for help in this area and with several international businesses just up the road it makes sense. Many of our parents work for them and the managing director of Airbus UK, who presided at our official opening, is keen to pursue his involvement. Another obvious link is Bradley Stoke's twin town, Champs-sur-Marne near Paris. We want our students to play their part in the community but they must be outward-looking too."

general interest | travel | education | languages | business

Mid-life escape