NSN is running a new series where we are talking to the leaders of recently opened free schools hearing about how they’ve implemented their vision and confronted the challenges of opening a new school.
We recently spoke to Anne Gouldthorpe, headteacher at Bullers Wood School for Boys an 11-16 boys’ school in Bromley, which opened in September 2018. The school belongs to the Bullers Wood Multi Academy Trust.
Anne has been a senior leader for 21 years and was a senior deputy headteacher at Bullers Wood School for Girls before becoming headteacher designate and then substantive headteacher of Bullers Wood School for Boys.
Tell us about the original idea behind your school?
“The Girls’ school had previously been approached by the local authority to consider opening a primary school at a time when there was a need for additional primary school places in the area. However, feedback from parents at various open evenings and other school events was that although they were really pleased with their daughter’s education, there wasn’t a similar educational offer for their sons. So, it was decided that we would apply to open a secondary free school for boys which would be run along similar lines to Bullers Wood School for Girls. Through the free school application process and the support of an NSN grant, we were able to demonstrate that there was a substantial need for a boys’ school in the area.”
What is unique about Bullers Wood School for Boys?
“We notice our uniqueness from what our visitors say: ‘the community’ is what makes it special. Parents students and staff have worked so hard, for so long, to open this school. There is a real community feel, a sense that everyone is pulling together and moving in the same direction.”
What has been your biggest challenge, and what steps have you taken to overcome this?
“Opening the school to begin with was the toughest challenge of all, we were deferred twice. We then obtained planning consent for the main school building including a temporary structure on our chosen site in October 2017. We had run our own admissions process and had over 500 Year 7 applications for September 2018. Then in January 2018, the planning consent was withdrawn and we were left with no school and no chance of opening. In reaction, there was an enormous public campaign from parents and supporters which drew a lot of press and political attention. In the end we were given an old office block for the first year of operation. The funding agreement was signed on the 28th February and offers went out on the 1st of March.
We were in the office block in the middle of Bromley with our first cohort of 180 boys from 2018 to 2019. In November of that same year a planning appeal by public inquiry took place and we were fortunate enough to win it. Therefore, in September 2019 we moved into another temporary building on our permanent site whilst the main school building was under construction.
The pandemic was also a massive challenge and prevented us from having the third year-group on the same site. In September 2020 we ended up with a split site school with Year 7s in the original office block building in the middle of Bromley, 2.5 miles away from Years 8 and 9 who were in the other temporary building.
When creating and establishing a new school, it is important that everyone works together to build the vision, culture and ethos and being on a split site combined with a second COVID lockdown made this a bit more of a challenge. It also meant that because of the distance, we couldn’t share staff across both sites.
What helped us establish everything was that we were able to provide a fresh start for all students and staff when we moved into our permanent building when schools reopened last spring.”
What steps have you taken to develop the school’s identity?
“We had thought about and developed a brand before we opened, which came through: our messaging, our website, uniform design, and our policies and procedures. We also use language to reinforce our identity and values, as well as staff modelling the behaviours we want to instil in our students.”
How do/will you define success at
“Officially, our success will be measured through external validation: by our first Ofsted inspection (which is imminent) and from our first set of GCSE results in 2023.
We also like to think about the development of our boys when defining our success. For us, this means that boys enjoy school and ‘buy in’ to the school. It is shown through fantastic levels of attendance, low exclusions, and in feedback from parents, staff and boys.
Our strapline is ‘Healthy, Happy, Resilient and Successful’. If our boys can be all of these, then we know we have achieved success.”
What inspired you to lead a completely new school?
“I was looking at headship just before we began the free school application process. A previous line leader once said to me that I might never find the perfect school and that I might have to compromise - I didn’t want to compromise. So, when the opportunity of writing the free school application presented itself to me – I grabbed it without a moment’s hesitation.
Leading a completely new school seemed like a fantastic opportunity. How many Headteachers in their careers can say they have been involved in every aspect of a school since its inception? I wrote the free school bid, worked with the construction team to design the building, worked with planners to get it approved, campaigned with parents and supporters, produced the education plan, created the blueprint, and appointed all my staff. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
Has anything surprised you since opening the new school?
“Once we were in the main building, there were lots of things that still needed to be addressed. For example, the exams office was ‘not compliant’, carpets no fit for purpose, the hall being smaller than anticipated.
Although staff say at interview that they can manage a full timetable of Year 7 lessons, nothing quite prepares you for that experience and by the end of the first term, they were on their knees!”
What advice would you give to other free school leaders who are preparing for their first term of opening?
“My advice would be that you need to be prepared and very prepared for the unexpected. For example, returning to school after the Easter holidays to discover that the construction company has removed the student pathway into the school – so there is no way!
Additional training days with all of your new staff are essential before you open to your first cohort of students so that they are ready to land running. They also allow you to communicate your vision and establish your expectations.
As a free school headteacher, it’s easy to get distracted and get pulled into other things especially if you have been project managing the build. Fortunately, for me a Chief Operations Officer was employed in the second term of opening which took a lot of the pressure off.
My advice is to keep your focus on what your core business is: what’s going on in the classroom and the mental health and wellbeing of students?
Being a free school Headteacher is a unique experience and opportunity. Stick with it. Although it can feel relentless sometimes, especially in the early years of opening, it pays off. We are really starting to see the results of all of our hard work now.”
What would you like to achieve at Bullers Wood School for Boys in the next 3 years?
“Obviously a successful Ofsted and the boys who are currently in Years 9 and 10 being successful not just academically but in all walks of life.
I would like to see the school go from strength to strength, see my staff move forward in their professional development and careers within the academy trust.
Most of all, I would like to see an end to this dreadful COVID-19 situation which is robbing our children of not just educational opportunities but those rites of passage that they should all experience as secondary school students.”
We’d like to thank NSN Hub member Anne Gouldthorpe for taking part in this interview and telling us about the rewarding and challenging aspects of opening a free school. The NSN Hub brings free school leaders together to learn, support and inspire one another. It provides a space to connect and find solutions to the issues which come up from running a new school. If you are a free school leader and would be interested in joining, would like to contribute or if you have any questions, please get in contact here.