Meeting challenges: The start of Highfields Spencer Academy’s journey

Anna Jones, Principal at Highfields Spencer Academy, reflects on how the school has overcome the challenges of opening during COVID-19 to establish a new school tailored to the local community and needs of pupils.   

Opening as a new school in the middle of the pandemic has been a challenging but incredibly rewarding time. We opened in September 2020 with Nursery and Reception, and this year have our first Year 1 class. Following huge demand from the local community for us to open other year groups, we will have Years 2 and 3 opening in September 2022.

We had an unusual experience during lockdown because so many of our families were key workers. We had between 75%-90% of pupils in for most of last year, which had its own challenges, working through delivering in the classroom whilst also providing remote learning for a small group of pupils – then working through helping them to integrate with their class so that they could transition with as little disruption as possible into real life learning. We even had a pupil who accessed remote learning from Africa for the first term of Reception, as he and his mum were caught out there when lockdown hit.

As many schools have found, we have had a huge number of pupils with speech and communication difficulties and social and emotional needs and have ended up committing to learning Makaton as a school, employing our own speech and language therapist. We are working with Greg Bottrill, author of Can I Go and Play Now?, as our Nursery teacher fell in love with his ‘Message Centre’ and ‘Adventure Island’ work and got the whole team hooked!

We are working with the OPAL Play Programme to develop physical literacy at school with the support of our South Derbyshire PE consultant, and have bought into REAL PE to help bring sport and active learning to the children. We’re also training our own Forest School Lead – and planted our first saplings for our own forest last year to mark our journey as a school. Hopefully the children will see the trees growing as they do over the course of the years that they live on the Highfield Estate.

Recently, we found out that we won a collaboration award from the Construction Industry for our work with our building company Morgan Sindall and architects Lungfish, working together to open a building which was created by Eco-Modular and shipped in from Hull so that we could open in time. It took eight months from ground breaking, to the school being up and running – trying to order furniture, fixtures and fittings for a school that you are not allowed to be in more than two or three times before we opened was interesting! And of course, opening a school with no building as all new schools know has its own ups and downs. Thank goodness for Twitter and Class Dojo to communicate with new parents…

Moving to a new academy trust from almost 20 years working for local authority schools was nerve-wracking at first, but Spencer Academies Trust had opened two new schools the previous year. The headteachers of those schools were a fantastic support, and the Principal at Rosecliffe Spencer and I worked to open our schools together.

There are lots of stories like this one, but becoming a new hub for a new housing estate and bringing together a wonderful community of families and creating a strong, new team of professionals has been the proudest moment of my life.

NSN is always on the lookout for fantastic free schools to share their journey with others. If you would like to write an NSN blog, our team would love to hear from you. Get in touch by emailing press@newschoolsnetwork.org 

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