A headteacher and a governor from Havering report on their experiences of amalgamating an infant school with the neighbouring junior school

We were two years into Hafise’s headship, having survived TLR restructuring, an Ofsted inspection under the new framework, and an Investors in People assessment. Hafise had completed the new heads programme, and we could have wondered what further demands could possibly arise for us, the headteacher and chair of governors of a primary school in Havering. We might have expected nothing more than having to keep up with new pieces of legislation, work creatively through the SEF and keep the school improvement plan on track. An amalgamation was not a challenge that we had anticipated!

Just before Christmas 2006 the headteacher of the neighbouring junior school resigned, advising that she would be leaving at the end of the summer term. As the potential joint pupil population was 720, with a staff team of over 86 people, and there were three buildings spread across one site, the prospect of amalgamation of the schools seemed very unlikely. But just under 266 days later the two schools were amalgamated. The new primary school welcomed staff on 3 September and the pupils and parents on 5 September.

Never say never!
Once the decision to undergo the consultation process had started, the technical journey included many steps and processes, but the more complex and intense part of our journey lay in the emotional stresses, the excitement and the issues of uncertainty that arose. These had to be dealt with sensitively and in a manner that did not disrupt the equilibrium of both schools and cause disruption to children’s learning and a feeling of unrest among parents.

On 19 January 2007, the council lead member signed Form A, thereby enabling the beginning of the process to consult on formal amalgamation. This was consistent with the current policy in the borough to promote amalgamation between two schools on the same site where there was a positive educational argument for doing so and where the amalgamation had the broad support of the various stakeholders.

Towards the end of March the local authority held a series of informative meetings with staff, parents and governors. These were well attended and dealt with questions such as:

  • Who would be the head?
  • Would there be two deputies?
  • Where would the school office be?
  • Where would the staffroom be located?
  • Was it a cost-cutting exercise?
  • Would staff be made redundant/redeployed?

Each time it was important that the local authority representatives made reference to the positive educational impact it was perceived that the amalgamation would have on the life-long learning of the current pupils and pupils of the future.

As could be expected, anxiety crept into the two schools and staff became concerned about job security, redeployment and whether they would be required to teach in phases of the school in which they did not feel confident. Even though elements of insecurity prevailed and individual members obviously had their own views on the prospect of amalgamation, there was an implicit agreement that personal opinions would not be shared with parents as it was important that, as stakeholders, they were not influenced during the consultation process by members of staff.

On 16 May, the cabinet considered a response displaying overwhelmingly positive views from the informal consultation process. This led to the publication of notices (on the school gates, in local library and newspapers) and a six-week formal consultation period. During this period there were no additional responses made to the council by members of the public or stakeholders within the process.

Business as usual
The process of appointing a new governing body was required, even though a final confirmation of the amalgamation had not taken place. This involved identification of a temporary governing body selected from the existing infant and junior governing bodies. At the meeting of 2 July the name of the new school, size and format of the governing body were chosen and the headteacher of the infant school was appointed (this being possible technically because the amalgamation was achieved through the closure of the junior school and the expansion of the infant school).

However, this was a time of ‘business as usual’. Both schools drew up their separate plans for the autumn. These would be used in the unlikely event of the amalgamation not being confirmed.
On 13 July the formal consultation period ended with the final cabinet decision expected on 25 July. The decision to amalgamate the two schools was finally made on 3 August 2007.

Initial preparations
This left 35 days (of the summer holidays!) to be fully prepared to open as a primary school for the autumn term. Telephone calls, text messages and a vast number of meetings with key members of staff led to a ‘smooth’ opening on 5 September.

The 3rd and 4th of September were significant days. They saw all 86 members of staff come together in  ‘Visioning Days’ in which fears, concerns, expectations and aspirations for the new school and our now 720 pupils were shared and explored.

Life after amalgamation
Is there life after amalgamation? The technical process expertly facilitated by the local authority, a thoroughly professional and supportive approach taken by the governing body and the ‘we will make this work attitude’ of the staff have meant that, although this has certainly been a challenging process, a vision and realistic direction for the school have been established. The pupils in the school, as usual, were positive in their attitudes and welcomed the amalgamation as an exciting venture. They were excited at the thought of seeing younger and older siblings throughout the school, sharing assemblies and having the teachers they had left teaching them again.

For the staff
The first term has been challenging and exciting and has involved taking risks, being patient, having to accept change as inevitable and having to think big. For the leadership team, at times, the learning curve has been excruciatingly steep and a leadership style that is relentless in its determination to be positive, while acknowledging difficulties and aiming to be flexible, has had to be adopted. As the headteacher and chair of governors, we have made it a priority to visit other large schools and to speak to leaders of schools that have undergone vast transformational and organisational change.

For the pupilsThe amalgamation has been welcomed. It has brought with it a new name, a new headteacher, a new school council, prefects who take responsibility for tasks across the school and who help to run clubs in Key Stage 1. They have been involved in designing and creating the new school logo, which has been adopted on all letter heading and correspondence, and are thrilled at the prospect of having cross-phase assemblies in each of the two school halls with younger or older siblings.

Suggestions by the school council that uniform should be pink and that all children should have spiky hair have not yet won our hearts over!

Above all, as we proceed through policy review and implementation, we can see how our pupils will benefit from a greater range of opportunities with regards to accessing a seamless, yet progressive curriculum right through from nursery to Year 6.

Moving forward
We have been amalgamated for almost two terms – what have we achieved? One of the main tasks prior to the amalgamation taking place was to create a strategic ‘Amalgamation – Moving Forward’ plan. This mapped out changes, improvements and organisational tasks and activities that ranged from a number of building works to be undertaken, assembly rotas, amalgamating the phone lines, performance management and developing a primary self-evaluation form to how to organise Christmas with 720 children! The plan is reviewed regularly and we are always pleasantly surprised to see how far we have come in a short space of time.

As we move through the second term we have had to review how leadership is distributed throughout the school – at all levels – and how accountability for performance, attainment and achievement are shared by all. Currently, we are undergoing an organisational review and restructuring process of all teaching staff and are planning a restructuring of all administrative staff, the main aim of which is to ensure that we have the right leaders, who share our vision and values, in all phases of the school.

Assessing the quality of learning and teaching in the school has been of paramount importance during the early terms of the amalgamation as we are strongly of the belief that, if we are to raise standards and ensure consistency across the school, our expectations must be clear and that support and training, if required, are made available.

Establishing clear communication channels and procedures has been crucial. We have had total support from our local authority advisers who have aided us in establishing communication systems online but have also been innovative in our own practices of establishing effective lines of communications through key staff members and communication logs.

Looking forward
There is still much to be done and our school improvement plan is regularly revised to accommodate new goals. The changes required to the school buildings have led to long, complex meetings with well-meaning contractors and we have yet to develop a whole-school behaviour policy and rewards system, embed assessment for learning throughout the school and enable our pupils to become fully involved in the many initiatives planned for delivering the five outcomes of Every Child Matters.

Regular self-reminders that the longer-term benefits of the amalgamation will be to enhance learning opportunities for all of our pupils help us face the inevitable turbulence that change brings about and assists in keeping our resolve strong.

Working and learning together to be the best that we can be

Yes, the journey continues to be exciting, challenging and steep and each day, as in all schools, brings its own agenda. Above all, we are determined to fulfil our school vision statement of ‘Working and learning together to be the best that we can be’ and to make our amalgamated school a happy and successful one for the 720 children it welcomes through the gates each day.

Hafise Nazif is a primary headteacher at Havering and David Leaper is the chair of governors