In her recent article for Tes, calling for in-service weeks rather than days, Sammy McHugh invited us to “think what schools could achieve with those extra weeks.”
Between April and May 2019 that is exactly what happened with the entire teaching body of Bertha Park High School, which was about to become Scotland's first brand-new state secondary school since 2002.
We had a six-week block of professional development, training and preparation. This is our story of those weeks and the impact they have had on our pupils, parents and staff since.
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It’s not very often that the stars align in education, but in April 2019 they did. Establishing Bertha Park High School in Perth was an uncommon challenge: not just a new building but an entirely new school. There were no values, vision, ethos, aims, uniform, identity, curriculum – not even any staff. As well as posing a tough undertaking, it also provided an extremely rare opportunity: we were able to hire everyone from scratch.
After an intensive recruitment drive in December 2018, all teaching staff took up post in April of 2019, four months before the doors of the new school opened, and a full six weeks before they were due to teach the learners who would become the school’s first students in August of that same year.
From the outset, Bertha Park was to become a digitally immersive environment – everything from the teaching and learning to the operational running of the school would leverage the best of what technology could offer. Perth and Kinross Council understood the complexity of establishing a completely new team and the development of this technology-rich environment, and granted time with which to prepare everyone for the opening of the school.
This not only allowed us to bond as a team, but to engage our new staff in intensive and high-quality training in the technologies we had chosen to adopt. All staff became accredited Microsoft Innovative Educators and established Office 365 (including Teams and OneNote) as the backbone of our virtual learning environment. The school was to provide devices for every learner from the beginning, so iPad training was a vital part of our development, too.
To get the best from any device and software, time is required to contextualise how it will work, to experiment with possibilities and to make necessary mistakes. We had a window which gave us all of that and more. We were also able to bond with the rest of the learning community, engaging in consultations with our future pupils and parents to co-design how our school would look, feel and operate. This allowed for better, more meaningful transitions, as we began to establish the relationships with pupils and parents that would be key to the success of our school.
We were afforded the time and space to devise our curricula and rethink the very pedagogy of what we were doing, by incorporating the pupils' devices into the planning and development of courses and resources.
We also used this time to train in mindfulness so we could instil this in everyone’s daily practice from when the school opened. We learned about the young people we were soon to meet and about the skills we would need to best provide the support they needed.
Training in all these skills was provided by sector specialists. And, as a new team, we bonded, getting to know each other well and, consequently, how to support each other as we tackled the challenge ahead.
The high level of digital training meant we opened our doors for the first time in August 2019 in a truly technology-rich learning environment. Fast-forward just seven months and education was suddenly all online, everywhere, as the Covid pandemic hit Scotland.
Given our previous preparation, we were able to move to remote learning with relative ease. We deployed the same tools we already used face-to-face, but now learners were in a different building to staff.
All of this was only possible because of those weeks of professional development. We had the time and freedom to do what was necessary to move our teaching and learning approaches further into the 21st century. The relatively seamless nature of the move to remote learning meant that our students and their parents were well supported from the very beginning, and that teachers experienced less stress than they might have otherwise.
Ask any one of our staff from 2019 and they will tell you that those training weeks had arguably the biggest impact on their practice and, consequently, on the experiences of our learning community. Sammy asked what could be achieved by schools if they had in-service weeks rather than days – and I truly believe it is almost limitless.
Stuart Clyde is headteacher at Bertha Park High School, in Perth and Kinross