A new dawn, a new day: managing increasing pupil numbers

Pupil numbers continue to increase and there’s growing pressure on local authorities to ensure there’s a place for each and every child. What happens when your school’s asked to help address a shortage of places? Andy Bird, CEO of the Fairfax Multi-Academy Trust (FMAT), discusses how he, the local authority and the MAT’s finance director banded together to plan and open a brand new primary school in Birmingham

In November 2014 we were approached by Birmingham City Council to work in collaboration with the Local Authority’s (LA) education department in an effort to help address a shortage of primary school places in South Birmingham. The need for primary places was pressing so the LA, FMAT’s finance director John Fitzgerald and I came together to produce a plan to create a new primary on the site of Bournville School, alongside our existing 11-18 provision.
The school was facing its own challenges; it had been placed in special measures and, when FMAT took over, we inherited a legacy of ineffective financial management. The school’s published admission number was falling and our priority then was to secure its financial future. The LA was keen to act and an opening date of September 2016 was set. We had a mountain to climb and very little time, so effective planning and open dialogue with the LA was essential.
The first hurdle was to carry out due diligence – we didn’t want to solve one set of problems by creating another. We also had to begin a consultation process, which came with added complexity as our plans involved proposals to close the school’s sixth form due to dwindling student numbers. The new direction we were taking the school in was bold and undoubtedly contentious; winning the hearts and minds of staff and the community has been among the challenges. The school has a long history, and is much-loved, which is why it’s so important to us to secure its future.
We identified a number of empty classrooms that could be refurbished in a rapid turnaround to accommodate our first cohort of primary pupils and architect plans were drawn up to create a new build that would house the rest of the primary school as it grows to reach its full capacity by 2021 – at this point offering 420 places. Planning permission was sought and contractors are due to begin work imminently, with a completion date of September 2017.
Without question it’s a mammoth project that is logistically challenging. Planning a building site on a school requires that you pay close attention to health and safety; timetabling has been paramount in this. We’ve established a timetable so the primary and secondary settings have separate start, finish and break times, avoiding too many pupils arriving and leaving the site at the same time. This approach also allows us to make the best use of our staff and facilities.
Effective project management will be vital as the scheme develops, along with ensuring clear and open lines of communication and chains of command across board. In terms of economies of scale, we’re focused on the back-office function. The benefits of creating an all-through school means everything, from HR to IT can be carried out by one team for both settings, freeing up money to be invested in teaching. Ultimately, this is about our pupils; we are determined to create schools and systems which offer a quality provision that will enhance their lives and allow them to flourish.
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