For a new series NSN is running, we’re talking to the leaders of newly opened free schools to hear how they’ve implemented their vision and confronted the challenges of opening a new school. We recently spoke to Kate Moss, Headteacher of Clearwater Church of England Primary Academy, for the first instalment of this series.
Clearwater Church of England Primary Academy is a school for pupils aged 2-11, based in Gloucestershire. The school opened in September 2017 and is a part of The Diocese of Gloucester Academy Trust. 90 pupils from Reception to Year 4 currently attend the school.
Can you tell us about the original idea behind Clearwater C of E Primary Academy?
“Our school is a ‘basic need’ free school. It came about because the local authority thought there weren’t enough places for the children in Gloucestershire. The local authority had a plot of land that was designated for a school, and then looked for tenders to open the school. The Diocese of Gloucester Academy Trust was awarded the tender to set-up Clearwater Primary Academy.”
What is unique about the school?
“It is a really warm, welcoming school. One of our unique points is that the community has really banded together, and been very welcoming of others. To start with, it was quite a disparate group, now it is a close-knit group that is always open to new families. It’s a really happy place to be, and to work. The staff are warm and welcoming, the children are happy, and the families who we communicate with daily also say it’s a happy place to be.”
What steps have you taken to develop the school’s identity?
“Parents were allocated before the school was built and before the head was appointed. To begin with, there was a lot of anger from the parents that they had been given this school. When it came to the first event to meet new parents, I had to chalk the outline of where the classrooms and school gate would be!
We had to do an awful lot of liaison to face the uncertainty head-on and reassure parents that it will all be fine. In adversity people band together and the original group of parents became powerful advocates of the school, which has continued.
They are the most fiercely loyal community – the school is the people, not the building.”
What has been your biggest challenge so far? What steps have/are you taking to overcome this?
“The main challenge has been winning over different communities. Since opening we have been in three different locations, and in each area there were tensions with the public who were concerned about change.
It was a challenge to reassure the parents that the school was going to stay local for their children, while also reassuring the community that we’re not going to come along to ‘wreck everything’, and clog up their roads! This was helped by the parents who repeatedly expressed their appreciation and pride in the school in-person and on social media.”
How do you define success at Clearwater C of E Primary Academy?
“When you’re a new school, a cohesive community is vital. It is important that everybody buys into our ethos, whether that’s parents, grandparents, neighbours and the school itself. We have 6 core values; joy, compassion, courage, community, respect, and responsibility - joy being first and foremost. I think success is this ethos being visible, so that you can really see it and feel it.
Success also means children learning, and learning well. It also means continuing to successfully recruit new staff who are up for a challenge and are therefore able to hit the ground running – in a free school, you have to be someone who likes to be hands-on and get involved in anything.
Finally, success means being open to getting things wrong and building on these learnings.”
What inspired you to lead a completely new school?
“It was a really exciting and interesting opportunity. The chance to shape something positive in an educational landscape was really inspiring. Obviously results are important, but it’s not all about jumping through hoops and getting results, it’s about the whole child. My background was in care before going into education, so I’m really interested in having children who feel safe, secure and happy. For me, it was about building a school that has this at its core.”
Has anything surprised you since opening the new school?
“Loads! The pupil’s creativity and energy. When we opened with one reception class, their depth was fascinating, as well as the amount of responsibility they can respond to at a very young age. You tend to reserve this for juniors in primary school, but that’s not the case here. The kindness of families has also surprised me, especially in the most interesting of circumstances with COVID-19 and moving locations.”
What advice would you give to other free school leaders who are preparing for their first term of opening?
“Get used to making lots of decisions really quickly! Enjoy it if you can, it’s amazingly interesting.
One key piece of advice I received from my first education adviser was that the schools which go slightly off the rails are often those that concentrate too much on the build and not enough on the curriculum and the actual core business of being a school. Really concentrate on what makes a school a school – this is something that has steadied me when making decisions, to ensure that the core business of education is right.
Another main point of advice I would give is that New Schools Network are a really good resource, because when you are setting up a school there is nobody else around you in the same position, so they are really helpful.”
What would you like to achieve at Clearwater C of E Primary Academy in the next 3 years?
“Integrating ‘Key Stage 2-ness’ throughout the school is really important. At the moment our eldest Year 4 children, whilst they are mature, haven’t had the influence of older peers. I want to ensure that as the children grow up they are still allowed to be “children” even in Year 6; not too cool for school, particularly with all the pressures of social media and phones. I would also like to keep recruiting excellent teachers. You can’t be a one-man band in a free school!”
We’d like to thank NSN Hub member Kate Moss 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.