Moving to a permanent site during COVID-19

After re-locating to a permanent site last month, Sarah Horsbrough, the Executive Principal at Elements Primary School, reflects on the journey her school has been through since it was established in 2018.

Opening a brand new school is challenging at the best of times. Add in a number of delays and a global pandemic and the challenges reach a whole other level! Thankfully, we are now happily settled in our fabulous new building and the trials of setting up and moving in are finally behind us.

Elements is a new free school in Middleton, south Leeds which opened in 2018 and is part of the Wellspring Academy Trust. No school previously existed on the site. We had the unenviable task of convincing nervous parents to take a leap of faith and send their precious little ones to a school that was merely a concept at that stage. Thankfully, there was clear demand for school places in the area and thanks to support from Leeds City Council’s admissions team, we opened in a temporary portakabin and excitedly welcomed our first 22 reception pupils.

Those early days with our small new team and our first pupils were really special. We were almost cocooned in our little world where we could start to develop the ethos and culture that would make Elements so unique. Looking out of the Portakabin windows, we could see the new building was going up at a rapid rate and by the end of the first year, our pupil numbers had increased to 37 as word spread locally about the school.

As Executive Principal, I worked closely with the contractors throughout the build process to create a vibrant, exciting school with at its heart; young children’s enjoyment and inspiration. It was looking spectacular. We were all disappointed when the build hit unforeseen issues just as we were preparing to move in. Circumstances entirely out of our control or responsibility led to the first of many delays.

The team’s resilience, which has been remarkable over the last two years, kicked in. Without fuss, they unpacked the boxes and instead of setting up in the shiny new building just metres away, they cracked on with converting more Portakabins into inspiring classrooms for our new reception pupils. Our intake in the second year was almost fully subscribed. Going from two classes to four was almost like setting up from scratch again as we expanded the team and learned to bring the Elements ethos to a much larger group.

Planned moving days came and went, boxes were packed and unpacked - and the nearly ready building continued to tease us every day. Our temporary home in Portakabins had become more permanent than any of us expected, but despite our disappointment we managed to create a place filled with joy and excellent teaching. After all, a school is much more than a building.

Then March hit and, like every school across the land, our priorities shifted to managing COVID-19. In a twist of fate, we had already decided to set the new school up using Google for Education. Not only was it amazingly effective, it was cheaper than other IT systems which meant we had money in the budget to buy a Chromebook per child. When lockdown happened, we moved seamlessly onto online learning, with all children able to access lessons via their Chromebooks. We could see and speak to children every week, social contact between children was maintained and safeguarding was straightforward. Our engagement rates were brilliant, with between 75 and 80% of pupils regularly taking part in online lessons. We were also able to support colleagues across Wellspring Trust in getting their online offer up and running.

The team worked relentlessly to provide online lessons, teach key workers’ and vulnerable children in school, and keep things going throughout the holidays. We were all exhausted by July but when we finally got the nod to move into the new building over the summer, we all got a second wind. Every member of staff turned up on moving day with the odd family member roped in. A Churchillian effort and carefully managed social distancing had us moved in no time.

We welcomed 162 children to Elements in September, with just one place spare in both Reception and Year 1. After such an arduous journey, seeing the children in their fabulous new school has been wonderful. Whilst we still can’t use the building to its full potential – after school curriculum clubs are on hold and assemblies are still being conducted virtually – being in a new building that has been designed specifically to meet the needs of our children and community has been worth all the hard work.

It’s been a mammoth team effort to get here. My school staff have been nothing short of heroic. Our Trust was brilliant at stepping to support us when we needed it with all the building and management challenges, but then stepping back and giving us the autonomy to create the school we knew was right for Middleton. Leeds City Council were great at helping us reach parents and convincing them to take a punt on us. The next challenge is ensuring we keep hold of Elements’ special, close knit family-feel as we continue to grow and take more children each year. I’m confident though that the trials and tribulations of our first couple of years have embedded the supportive, can-do Elements culture into our DNA.