What would you do if you had a completely blank slate on which to design a brand-new school? Not just a new building for an old school. But an entirely new school, with no institutional memory, no existing rules, regulations, no reputation and no encoded traditions.
How would you establish the values, the vision, the ethos and aims, the mission statement? What would you place high on the curriculum? How would you define your identity? What skill-sets would you want the teachers to have? And what about the support staff: how many would you have and what would you want them to be able to do? And of course, what would you do about the technology?
These questions, and countless more, were exactly what our team faced when establishing Bertha Park High School in April 2018, the first non-replacement secondary school in Scotland for almost twenty years.
Creating a 21st century school
What a unique opportunity, and one we grabbed on to with both hands. Firstly, we challenged everything. Any decision we had to make we questioned. This was a real opportunity to think differently and think better. We could challenge the norms of secondary schools and force decisions based not on what suits the administration of a school, but on preparing the young people for life in the 21st century.
Let’s take the set-up of the school. School bells. We don’t have them. Historically, bells were used to programme young people to start and stop tasks on the sounding of a bell to prepare them for work in the factories of industrialised Britain. That world, arguably, is no more. So why would we prepare our pupils for an environment that no longer exists?
We have four 80-minute periods per day instead of six or seven, which are common in other schools. Why? 80 minutes allows fewer subject to be taught in the one day. Therefore, there is less mental juggling for the students. Also, less time is wasted on period change-overs and travelling between classes. Longer periods also allow for much more in-depth learning in the same lesson and even the opportunity for outdoor activities.
Improving health and wellbeing
Young people’s mental health and wellbeing is a concern for every school. We took this opportunity to introduce daily mindfulness sessions. This allows students the chance to get themselves into a better mental and emotional state for learning.
We thought hard about students using their mobile phones during school time and decided that this was not something we wanted to support. We are providing the learning tools for the pupils in the shape of 1:1 devices, therefore they don’t need their phones and the distraction of social media. Student’s phones are confined to their lockers during school hours – including breaks.
Our use of the physical space is something we considered in depth too. We have a number of open-plan teaching and learning areas alongside classrooms. These are used for individual, paired, and group-work as an alternative to classroom working. These spaces reflect contemporary working spaces in universities, colleges and the workplace – again preparing our learners for the 21st Century.
Re-imagining parent-teacher relationships
We took this opportunity to re-examine the relationships schools have, not only with the pupils, but with the parents too. We spent a great deal of time consulting with the community. We got their input on what kind of place they wanted the school to become, what the values and ethos would be.
We then set about explaining that, for this to come about, everyone in the triangle: students, parents, and staff would have to agree to abide by the values of the school with everyone treating each other with respect and patience to get the best out of their time at school.
Building student and staff digital skills
We chose Microsoft Office 365 and our virtual learning environment. The majority of the classes, homework, and lesson content is delivered through Teams and OneNote.
These platforms have provided a seamless integration of school work, homework, student collaboration, peer support, shared documents, efficiency, and anytime, anywhere learning.
Students have their own devices, provided by the school, and these provide an equity in opportunity across the board. They encourage creativity and the freedom to tackle tasks in a new and contemporary way. Stop-motion animation, green-screen filming, blogs, and videos are common methods for our students to demonstrate their learning.
Teachers too are grabbing this opportunity with both hands and devising teaching tools and resources that take advantage of what technology can provide. In the months leading up to the opening of the school in August 2019, we ran careful recruitment drives alongside intense training. This ensured that every teacher was comfortable with the technology and the Microsoft suite of tools was deployed consistently across the entire school.
Our communication with parents benefits from immersion in the digital realm. No more banana-sodden newsletters printed on paper and languishing at the bottom of school bags. We send links to Microsoft Sways sharing the stories of what’s been going on in the school, featuring video documentaries, interviews, and photo-shows as well as more traditional text accounts.
Our entire approach to technology has been based on and supported by the Microsoft Education Transformation Framework and the Flagship tenets. These have given us a rationale to base our direction upon and a justification for the way we are approaching the establishment of our school, the curriculum content, and our technology immersion. The Microsoft Office 365 suite provides tools to allow us to deliver what we’ve promised.
A successful start
We opened our doors to learners on 21 August 2019. We learnt a lot in the months and years leading up that day. And we have continued to learn every day since. We realised that the world has changed dramatically, and therefore, so too has education.
We also realised that too many schools wanted to teach the way they always have done – blissfully preparing the young people for a world that no longer exists.
We wanted to challenge that – as any self-respecting and forward-thinking school would.
If you are considering making some changes (and why wouldn’t you?) here are our top tips:
- Be brave (have the courage to do what no one else is doing, yet).
- Seek forgiveness, not permission (you’ll never get off the ground otherwise).
- Proceed until apprehended (you’ll be amazed by the positive changes you can make)
By equipping our students with vital digital and soft skills in an environment that mimics the workplace of the future, we are preparing our students to succeed in the future of work.
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About the author
Stuart Clyde is Head Teacher at Berth Park High School. He is passionate about giving students the digital and soft skills they need to succeed in the future. He aims to give students the very best experiences and opportunities throughout their time at Bertha Park High School.