The Blandford School’s £12 million rebuilding and refurbishment may be approaching completion, but as Joël Lacey discovers, it is part of a continuous process of improvement and achievement that is not limited to bricks and mortar
Published in January ’12
The only thing for which head teacher Sally Wilson could possibly reproach the architect behind the Blandford School’s beautiful new building is the sound of teenage footfall from the purpose-built drama studio above her office; she does admit, however, to liking the fact that her office isn’t wholly insulated from the day-to-day goings on at the school. This literal as well as metaphorical lack of isolation with the life of the school is underscored by how close the head teacher’s office is to the stylish new reception area.
As notes from music students drift in the air, and with artwork all around the walls, one could easily imagine oneself to be in the foyer of a high-class hotel, rather than the reception area of a secondary school with 1116 students. The feel of the reception area is no accident; the architect, Dermot McCarthy, whom Sally Wilson describes as ‘inspirational’, listened to representations from the student body who declared their interest in a reception which was ‘classy and professional’ and which they wished to look ‘like a five-star hotel’.
Although the refurbishment element of the £12 million scheme is not yet complete, there is a palpable sense of pride from students, teachers and site and ground staff in the new building. It is quite a few months since the new building was opened, but there is barely a scuff mark to show the passage of time or of thousands upon thousands of student journeys.
When Sally Wilson was appointed as head teacher in November 2002, one of the reasons she applied for the position was so that her first headship (she was hitherto Deputy Head at Queen Elizabeth School in Wimborne) would be a smaller school. Two months after her appointment and three months before she was due to take up her position, she was told of the plan to switch to a two-tier education system in Blandford to even out the effects of a significant but temporary fall in the local birthrate; this was a move which would increase the student roll by 400 pupils and require the recruitment of 45 extra staff. It was no longer a smaller school and she had not yet taken up her position.
In 2005, when the transition from three tiers (first, middle and high schools) to two tiers (primary and secondary schools) occurred, in order to minimise the disruption to the younger students coming from the middle school, their tutor groups were based in what had been Milldown middle school’s building. Initially the teachers decided that rather than make the younger students trek around the site, they themselves would move around and leave the pupils in situ. After six weeks of sprinting around the site with teaching materials for entire classes, the teachers realised that no matter how well intentioned the idea had been it was impractical. The school day was rescheduled to permit the students time to move around the site. With the closure and ultimate demolition of the Milldown school building the school feels a more compact place. It has also made life a lot easier on the staff, who are all housed on one site now, rather than spread across two. The scale of the construction and refurbishment work is best evidenced by the fact that Sally Wilson has spent a day a week on the project since it began, in addition to her normal workload, not to mention recently earning a premises licence to enable the school’s facilities to become an income stream when not in use for educational purposes.
Much to the consternation and disappointment of staff, governors, students and parents, the school along with four others in Dorset was, at the last OFSTED inspection, re-graded from ‘Good’ to ‘Satisfactory’, owing to a change in the grading methodology. While the over-riding feeling within the school is one of steely determination to regain their former status, the real frustration for Sally Wilson was that in both areas where the inspectors had identified weaknesses the school had previously identified them internally and put systems in place to improve them, which have already had an impact on the issues. Had the inspection been in the autumn term, not the spring, things might have been very different. Although the inspectors will return to see how these changes have made a difference, it will be another three frustrating years – irrespective of achievement – before the school’s rating can be changed.
Given the usual spread of abilities in a state comprehensive school, it is always a challenge to ensure that each student – whatever that individual’s level of academic ability, personal circumstance and challenges – receives the same level of pastoral and educational support and motivation. While the Blandford School has the expected programmes for those with special educational needs and for the gifted and talented, one of the most interesting items in the head’s office is the board showing the status of those students who might once just have had their reports annotated with the dread three-word phrase: ‘could do better’.
The Raising Achievement Project (RAP) is an initiative led by core subject leaders who meet regularly to look at those who ‘could do better’ and help them to do just that by means of an individually tailored scheme to ensure that they can and do perform to the best of their ability and carry on improving. This could be in the form of mentoring from one of the group – including from the head herself, a quiet (or sharp) word about performance, an examination of circumstances which may have led to the drop-off in attained versus expected progression, or whatever else the individual
The idea of progress, rather than just attainment, is an important one; it chimes with the school’s motto, ‘Motivation and challenge for all’, which is a clear declaration of intent that ‘good enough’ is not good enough. Neither is the concept of continuous improvement just restricted to the staff. The Student Parliament – around eighty students, a speaker and a prime minister, regularly consults with the student body and passes its advice and suggestions on to the staff. This even includes recommendations as to the way that classes could be taught – an exercise which might have held out the prospect of some educators’ noses being put out of joint, but which has in fact been well received. The parliament engages in fund-raising for the school and for charities in the Blandford area and beyond, and is also working with the staff on attaining the UNICEF Rights-Respecting School Award. As well as embedding the 54 articles of the UN Convention on the Rights of a Child (CRC) in the school’s curriculum, the scheme marries up with government’s desire to embed the twin ideals of rights and responsibilities in all young people.
Heeding the changing focuses of successive governments is one of the perennial problems of working in education. As well as ensuring that the students under her care are taught properly, nurtured and encouraged to the best of their abilities and interests, Sally Wilson also has to ensure that her students will be prepared for whatever the educational landscape may be by the time they come to leave school or make subject-selection decisions. In the case of those whose bent is not necessarily an academic one, this could include encouraging students in vocational subjects to study to intermediate or advanced levels in a familiar environment, or providing BTECs as an alternative to A’ Levels in appropriate subjects.
Keeping pace with the Department for Education can also mean a degree of crystal-ball gazing as well as speedy reactions to changes in policy; a recent example of which was the introduction of the English Baccalaureate, which required humanities and languages to be included along with science, mathematics and English. In short, the school has to prepare its curriculum to be appropriate for an unknown educational future, all the while ensuring that this preparation runs alongside the current requirements of education. It is just as important that the preparation is not just for its own students, but also those pupils who are at the primary school stage in the Blandford Schools Network. By working closely with other schools in the network transition from primary to secondary can be as painless as possible for all concerned; the partnership with independent school Bryanston also means that diverse topics such as Latin and rowing are on offer higher up the school.
As well as other schools, the Blandford School has wide-ranging connections with those working in social and educational care in the town and beyond; this includes a student support worker employed by the Blandford Youth Trust, Ken Reynolds, based on site. He has a caseload of around 200 students each year, whom he helps with anything from friendship issues, bereavement, self-confidence or other personal problems. Along with what she describes as ‘a very strong group of heads of year’ Sally Wilson describes the work that Ken does as a key strength of the school. She talks with animation of her pride in the school, its governors, staff, students and parents, and how well they have all coped with the upheaval of the reorganisation and reconstruction work, and encourages anyone thinking of sending their child to the Blandford School to come and see it for themselves. With a site whose location can rival any in Dorset, it is an invitation worth accepting.
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