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 Matt Stevens, Principal of Saracens High School. The school opened in 2018 for students aged 11-18 and currently has 660 students out of a total capacity of 1130.
Tell us about the original idea behind your school?
“I was not involved in the original idea for the school, but it came about because Saracens rugby club, who were a nomadic rugby club that played all over the place, wanted a home. Barnet gave them a permanent home and someone within the organisation thought it would be good to establish a legacy for the club, so they looked to establish a school. Barnet needed a school in an area of real deprivation, so this was an exciting opportunity to build a legacy and make a real impact.”
What is unique about Saracens High School?
“Being linked to a sports organisation, makes us unique.
I also think our ethos is special, as Saracens has four values: discipline, hard work, honesty, and humility. Everything comes from these values. We are also family focused, so we don’t have big form groups, which means every member of staff really know their students and their families. We also have family lunches, where children sit at a round table, eat together, serve each other, and clear away together.
We are building character, building people and working with families to do that.”
What has been your biggest challenge so far?
“The building has been a challenge.
Before I was appointed as Principal, I told the project manager that I didn’t want the job if it was going to be a school where the temporary accommodation goes on and on. She assured me we would be in temporary accommodation for the first year and a half, two years at the most; but we were actually there for just over three years!
There were many complications. We had moved into a building that had been a primary school, but that school had moved out seven years earlier, which meant there were a lot of things wrong with it. When I spoke to the previous headteacher he said, “there’s two boilers, one of them is broken and one of them is breaking!”
When interviewing staff, we always asked them to demonstrate how they can be flexible. We always used the phrase, “it will all be fine!” Although it was sometimes difficult, we had the mindset that we’ll get through it.
The pandemic was also a challenge, as it prevented us from being the school we wanted to be. Our ethos was all about family - suddenly we had to be in bubbles and were unable to mix with each other.”
What steps have you taken to develop the school’s identity?
“I think our family ethos resonated with the community and word of mouth was important. We held zoom meetings to replace full open evenings. We did this with prospective parents to reinforce our values and ethos. We know this has been positive as we receive lots of applications from students and staff.”
How do/will you define success at Saracens?
“Success for us will be the calibre of young people leaving the school, knowing they’ve got the knowledge, skills and qualifications they need to move to the next stage in their lives. Success also means knowing that they are living our values. We want them to leave with a moral purpose and a passion for making positive contributions to their communities.”
What inspired you to lead a completely new school?
“I wasn’t looking for a new school, I was actually looking for my first headship in an established school. I saw this job in Barnet, which is where I’m from, so I started to look into the organisation and its values and it became evident that their values completely aligned to mine. Although I wasn’t looking, I found the right school for me.”
Has anything surprised you since opening the new school?
“The staff and their commitment has blown me away. When packing up the old school we had 1,000 crates delivered and everything had to be fitted into those crates. For some staff, like the Maths department, this was relatively easy. But for other staff in admin, Art, DT, PE, this was a huge undertaking. But once staff were done with their own tasks, they all mucked in to help each other.
Also, the children and the progress they make is phenomenal. During the pandemic, we focused a lot on character development and the impact of developing those skills on academic attainment was surprising. Most schools expect children to make a grade’s worth of progress per year. Each of our Year 7s have made nearly 2 years’ worth of progress.”
What advice would you give to other free school leaders preparing for their first term of opening?
“It will all be fine!
The job becomes overwhelming. I remember being sat with a former colleague who had become a headteacher a few years prior, and I said to her, “I can’t do this job”. She said, “that’s right, nobody can. The job is un-doable, don’t worry about it, you just come in every day you do the best you can, tomorrow you pick up from where you left off”.”
What would you like to achieve at Saracens in the next 3 years?
“We’ve got our first GCSE cohort next year, so in 3 years we will be introducing our sixth form provision. We’ve started planning for this and we have some exciting possible pathways for our sixth form, which we would like to see operating successfully. One of these is around apprenticeships. We will link with local businesses and children will come in to school for two or three days a week, where we will help them prepare for work and then they will go and work at the business. We will also be offering traditional vocational and A-Level qualifications and we will want to see children going off to Russell Group universities.
We also want to be a hub for the community; a centre for everyone in the area to make their lives better. Outside of school hours we want people making use of our site.
Finally, seeing staff moving on and making progress. The next progression will be staff who have been here four or five years getting promotions, for example as heads of department in other schools, or senior leaders going on to take on their own schools.”
We’d like to thank NSN Hub member Matt Stevens 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.