Opening any new school is a rare and exciting opportunity, and one to be relished. When that school is set to be a major secondary school serving an area of Oxford where places are badly needed, it only increases the excitement, expectation and pressure.
The Swan School is set to open in September 2019 and is due to be built on the Harlow Centre site in Old Marston. It will be run by the River Learning Trust (RLT) and will be for ages 11 to 18, initially admitting 120 pupils a year, rising to 180 from 2021.
RLT is a multi-academy trust, which currently includes four secondary schools and seven primary schools, including The Cherwell School in Summertown. The Swan School will be linked to The Cherwell School, but it will be different.
As you may have seen in the press recently, a planning application is currently being finalised by the developer, Galliford Try, and the ESFA (part of the Department for Education).
We will be up front and admit that the process has been complicated – such things always are – and it has taken longer than everyone involved would have liked.
We have read suggestions in letters to the press and on social media that the school is not going to open on time and that it may not open at all.
The latter is simply not the case. On the former point, we are happy to say that we are currently on track to open for the 2019-2020 academic year.
Granted, the wonderful new buildings that are set to house the school may not be quite ready by then. But the school is set to open, with the first cohort of pupils to be educated together in temporary accommodation.
While this is not ideal for those pupils, they will have a special role in creating the new school and will be the first to enjoy our wonderful new buildings when they do open. We cannot say where the temporary site will be at the moment as negotiations are ongoing, but we will let you know as soon as possible.
What we can let you know now, however, are more details of what we are planning for the school.
An important feature is that the school day will be longer than normal, which will create more time to cultivate the ethos of academic excellence that we are planning. In fact, the focus will be unapologetically academic; the teaching and the curriculum will be rigorous, unusually so.
We know from experience and from learning from other new schools that such an approach provides young people from all contexts with the best preparation for their future.
Students will learn rich and challenging content, becoming well-informed and articulate, able to think independently and critically; public speaking and debating will be regular features to support oracy and self-confidence.
The longer day will also be used for performing arts and creative options – all students will take part in a play or concert in their first three years. And there will be compulsory sport and other activities.
But it will not be some sort of unforgiving hot-house. There will be an emphasis on kindness and all pupils will be expected to contribute to the school and wider community.
Another distinctive feature will be the arrangements for catering and lunch. Students and staff will sit and eat together to promote healthy eating, caring for others, maturity and conversation skills.
It might all seem ambitious, but we are ambitious.
We are delivering school places where they are needed, when they are needed, and we have the chance to create something brilliant in the process. As an educator, it does not get much more exciting than this.
This article first appeared in the Oxford Times on March 29 2018.