Parents are supposed to have a choice in their child's education. I know in reality this is not always the case. It depends on where you live, and whether or not other local schools have places available. Our school is vastly over-subscribed. It's not just because we have huge numbers of children living in the Belmont and Cheam areas; there's something very special about Avenue. In this article, I hope to describe to you what it is that makes us different, recognising that what I say may not appeal to every parent.
I joined the school in September 2011, appointed by the governing body as its new head teacher to lead a three-form entry school. The pressure to expand was immediately evident as the governing body was asked to consider a 'bulge' class at that time. Over the next two years, further classes were added to meet the needs in the local community, and this led to the decision by the Local Authority to expand the school, on a permanent basis, to four form entry. This has meant a huge building project in the region of £4M and an increase in staff, plus a change in the structures and procedures to accommodate the additional children. The pressure for school places is still there, and all Sutton's schools that are able to increase in size have done so. I believe that we have created a school that works very well, with all the systems and structures in place to ensure that children feel valued and supported, as they would do at any good school.
In September 2013 the school was designated as a Teaching School - Teaching schools are outstanding schools that work with others to provide high-quality training and development to new and experienced school staff. They are part of the government’s plan to give schools a central role in raising standards by developing a self-improving and sustainable school-led system. As an element of this, several of the staff are designated as 'Specialist Leaders of Education', and I am a 'National Leader of Education'. As well as working to support other schools, it means that pupils at Avenue have some of the best teaching available, and other teachers in the school receive the best support possible to develop in their careers. If our best teachers are out of school making a difference in other schools, how can that help Avenue or the children in our school? That's all part of professional development. Each time our staff work with another school, they both bring back new ideas for us, and develop their own knowledge and skills to enhance education in our own environment. Our own moral purpose of wanting the best education for all children, whether they are at Avenue or not, is part of the ethos of our school.
In order to work even more closely with other schools, the decision was taken to convert from a Local Authority Maintained school to an academy, and this took place in September 2015. Apart from the name change, and a new logo, children and parents would not have noticed much change. Our academy is now a member of Cirrus Primary Academy Trust, again a new Trust established in order to create a Multi-Academy Trust, so that we can eventually have six schools all working closely together and benefiting all of the pupils and staff in those schools.
Avenue Primary Academy is big! Walking past the school, this is not always apparent. We have two entrances to the school - a pedestrian entrance on Dorset Road, and a pedestrian and vehicle entrance on Avenue Road. Tucked away behind the houses, and backing onto Belmont Rise (the A217), is a school for children from Nursery age to Year 6 (3 to 11 year olds) - and there are currently 927 of them. By September 2016, we will have 964 children and around 110 staff. The building work to expand the school should be completed by December 2015, although there will be some minor works over the next few years as we continue to ensure we have the best facilities available for learning. We have ensured that learning has not been adversely affected by the substantial work that has taken place over the last two years. In September 2014 we opened a Special Educational Needs Opportunity Base for up to 12 children aged between 4 and 7 with moderate learning difficulties (MLD). Although a separate facility in the academy, it is very much integrated within the main school.
Although Avenue is now designated as a four-form entry school, further bulges have been added - one in 2013 and one in 2015, so that our current Reception and Year 2 both have five classes of 30. This does not make the school a five-form school - its net capacity from Reception to Y6 (not including Nursery or the SEN Base) is 840. The Trust must consider carefully the needs of its community and whether it should provide four or five classes in 2016. Children admitted to our academy in 2015 all lived within 1km (0.6 miles) of the main gate.
Imagine a 3 year old faced with a crowd of 900, let alone a 10 year old faced with the same! The way we structure the school ensures that children don't feel overwhelmed. Think of it as separate 'units' of the school. At the beginning and end of the school day (where we have the issue of parents on the site as well as all the children) we have had to adjust and adapt our procedures to ensure both the safety of children and staff, but also ease congestion as best we can. By putting senior teachers on all the gates, and at strategic points around the school, no child should feel overwhelmed, and all parents are able to have a face-to-face conversation with a member of staff. We work closely with our local residents' association too, and believe that our traffic congestion around the academy is no different from most other primary schools.
The Nursery is very separate from the rest of the school. Although it shares the same building and the teacher has the benefit of all of our school resources at her disposal, the Nursery children and their parents even come and go at different times from the rest of the school. The children spend three hours a day in school in either the morning or afternoon session, and are securely confined to their own area of the school.
We have five Reception classes, each with 30 pupils. These 150 4-5 year olds have five class teachers and five teaching assistants working with them, as well as a phase leader and an Assistant Head Teacher, who oversee the lower part of the school, and several other adults often in the classrooms at any one time. The five classes are registered in their own classrooms, and spend part of their day in that room, but have the advantage of having various activities set up for them within the Reception classes area, including outside. The size of just our Reception classes is bigger than some small schools in the country, and the Reception children feel very much part of a small group within our school. We stagger our morning playtimes so that our Reception children have the area to themselves, and they often come together for special group assemblies. At lunchtime they go into the hall together first, and have the opportunity to mix with our Y1 children (5-6 year olds). Supervision and an emphasis on good behaviour ensures that all the children benefit from the experience.
At Key Stage One (Year 1 and Year 2 - our 5-7 year olds) the organisation is very similar. The same Assistant Head Teacher oversees KS1, and each year group in the school has a Year Group Leader (a more experienced teacher with responsibility for the classes in that year group). Two year groups together have a Phase Leader. The nine classes in KS1 come together regularly for daily assembly and other activities. The group of 270 children in Y1 and Y2 is the size of a typical school, and the structures we have in place ensure that it runs like that.
Once children move into the juniors (Key Stage Two - Years 3 to 6), similar structures exist - there is an Assistant Head Teacher who oversees that part of the school (like the head of a smaller school), each year group has a Year Group Leader, and there are two Phase Leaders for KS2. There are three classes in Y6, with our four-form year groups in Y3, Y4 and Y5 in September 2015 , so 450 children in that part of the school. They are often split into two phases - lower KS2 and upper KS2, and have separate playtimes.
So, our structures exist to ensure that children feel part of a smaller group in school and are not overwhelmed by the size. On special occasions, such as the beginning and end of term, we come together as a 'whole school', which we will be able to do from January when our new hall in completed. This is an exhilarating experience for both staff and children. Having a large school sometime means that we have to compromise on some aspects. For instance, we can't have a whole-school sports day, but we still have sports days for two year groups at a time and, actually, not having to mix age-groups together is an advantage.
A large school means a relatively large budget allocation, not disimilar to that of a small secondary school. With that comes economies of scale. One such example of where this is visible is our swimming pool. A number of primary schools have pools but many have had to close them because they are a drain on resources.
Now, here's the bit that I believe is the most significant element of the size of our school. I am able to employ a large staff of teachers and support staff. We have a part-time school nurse and our own Family Support Worker, as well as other well-qualified and trained staff to support all the needs of our children. Our premises staff and office staff ensure the smooth running of the school. We have 29 classes plus the Nursery and SEN Base (rising to 30 classes plus Nursery and Base in September 2016), yet I am able to employ 57 teachers (some are part-time). We have an executive head teacher, a head of school, two deputy head teachers, three assistant head teachers, and four other leaders, all without class responsibility. These leaders are able to support teachers across the school in their own professional development, including modelling good and outstanding teaching.
Professional Development and training is such a high priority for our school's development, that we actively encourage our staff to continue their own education and ensure that our environment is not just a learning environment for children. If a class teacher is away from their class for any reason (and this is regularly), the children are taught by one of our own, experienced staff. It is this commitment to development that attracts the best staff to work at Avenue, and keeps them here! Because of our size, and what we are doing to support other schools, teachers have a career progression and promotion prospects within our own academy and Trust. Our school buzzes with learning!
I haven't begun to describe what's unique about our curriculum, or any of the learning opportunities we provide for our pupils, but I hope I've given you a sense of why our school provides an outstanding education for our children.