NSN Hub Member Interview with Helen Wood, The High School at Leckhampton

To showcase the excellent work of free school leaders across the country, NSN has conducted a series of interviews with leaders of recently opened free schools to hear how they’ve implemented their vision and confronted the challenges of opening a new school.

For this interview, Helen Wood, Headteacher of The High School at Leckhampton, kindly agreed to share her story of opening a new free school. The High School at Leckhampton opened in September 2021 and is an 11-16 secondary school located in Gloucestershire.

Tell us about the original idea behind your school?

“Our school has originated from demographic need in the Cheltenham area for secondary school places. It is a presumptive free school supported by the Balcarras Trust, which applied for sponsorship in 2018.”

What is unique about The High School at Leckhampton?

“There is a tremendous amount of parental engagement and support, and that strong feeling of community underpins the school.

Furthermore, we have a special relationship with The Balcarras Trust. We are on a temporary site at Balcarras School, which means we can share staff and draw on their expertise. In a new school it is often difficult to provide children with a broad and rich curriculum that is delivered by specialists, but we have been able to do it.

The staff are a truly remarkable bunch of colleagues and are really motivated by starting a school. They live and breathe the values of school. They roll their sleeves up and go the extra mile. The sense of pride in what we are doing is lived every day.”

What has been your biggest challenge, and what steps have you taken to overcome this?

“I was previously working as deputy headteacher of a school in Worcestershire, so a big challenge for me was coming across the border between Worcestershire and Gloucestershire. I lost the network that I had overnight and had to start building this again from scratch.

It was also a challenge to try and establish a new school within someone else’s school. As we are on the site at Balcarras, we have had to understand how Balcarras functions very quickly. Decisions that I would have been able to make independently have been made with consideration for Balcarras; there are also significant benefits to this arrangement! The competing claims on my time, managing the operational side of the school that’s open, while planning ahead, is perhaps the biggest challenge.”

What steps have you taken to develop the school’s identity?

“We have worked hard to develop the identity of the School. We consulted with parents to find out what kind of school they wanted for their children. As we only have 120 children, I was able to meet every single child and to think really carefully about provision. From that, our strong values and ethos have emerged.”

How do/will you define success at The High School at Leckhampton?

“Success will see the children achieving the very best outcomes they can, regardless of where they started and will therefore be able to make good choices when they leave us. It also means that they have an enjoyable time at school, that they thrive, are happy, make lifelong friendships and have good relationships with teachers. If children look back at their time at school in a positive way, I will think we will have done a good job!

I also hope that our parents will feel confident in the school and the quality of our provision. Finally, I hope that our teachers will sustain their initial motivation, enjoy working at the school and have a great sense of professional satisfaction in their work.

Overall, I think success means that we are serving the whole community.”

What inspired you to lead a completely new school?

“The opportunity to establish a new school to shape the curriculum and experience for young people was a significant pull. I was also attracted by the opportunity to start with Year 7 and to grow the school over a long period of time.

I’ve always enjoyed supporting and developing teachers, and opening a new school presents an opportunity to develop people professionally. I enjoy every aspect of school life. In a new school you’ve got the unique opportunity to work across the school with lots of different people, in lots of different ways.”

Has anything surprised you since opening the new school?

“I certainly underestimated the extent to which being on a different site in the first year would impact my work in year 2. It’s like having two jobs – a headteacher and project manager! I have also been taken aback by the strength of support from parents and children. We’re only one term in, and already the staff, pupils and parents are so proud of and committed to the school. At times it’s quite overwhelming.”

What advice would you give to other free school leaders who are preparing for their first term of opening?

“Developing a network of other new heads and newly opened schools by reaching out to people who are in a similar situation, has been extremely helpful.

The Ofsted inspection and all the preparation prior to opening also put us in a strong position. It involved huge amounts of work, but our policies and procedures were tested, which gave us a huge amount of confidence.”

What would you like to achieve at The High School at Leckhampton in the next 3 years?

“I’m really ambitious for the pupils and staff at the school. I would hope that in three years the students embarking on Year 10 will have chosen a good range of GCSEs and be well on their journey to success at the end of Year 11. I would also like to see staff maintaining the same amount of energy and motivation that they’ve brought. I hope we’re the genuine first choice school for the parents in the area.”

We’d like to thank NSN Hub member Helen Wood 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.