With a two-year building project coming to an end and a new set of hands at the wheel, the 2015/16 school year promises to be an interesting one.
Dr Alison Lodwick took over from Leon Nettley in September – no small challenge as the latter had been headteacher for 18 years – and has already embraced the role.
Fresh from 14 years at the all-girls Townley Grammar School, in Bexley, where she finished as associate headteacher, Dr Lodwick said her new role fits her “like a hand in a glove”.
Explaining what attracted her to Millais, she said she had never intended to stay in London and, as she had previously spent time in East Sussex, had been keen to return to the area. That, coupled with a desire to lead a girls’ school, made Millais the perfect fit.
She said: “When this opportunity came along – I worked in mixed schools before and I just feel I wanted to lead a girls’ school.
“I think that girls need modelling, having a role model and therefore a girls’ school was probably my next step – another girls’ school as a leader, not a deputy, because you get to influence and impact so much more as the head of the school.
“That was my intention, so it comes together really. The area and the school attracted me.”
As well as being able to live and work in West Sussex, which she described as “a lovely area”, there was another aspect of the role which proved to be irresistible to Dr Lodwick – Millais was designated a National Teaching School in 2011 and 2015.
A teaching school is one which has established itself as outstanding and works to provide high-quality training and development to new and experienced staff at other schools in the area.
The government hopes to have a network of 600 teaching schools by March 2016.
Dr Lodwick said: “Because I’ve got a Doctorate of Education and I did it at Sussex University, the whole notion of teaching teachers within schools appealed to me.
“It was like a hand in a glove. When you’re interested in being a head you don’t just look at all schools, you look at schools where you feel as if you can contribute something towards that school.”
She agreed being named a National Teaching School had been an honour and said “it creates more of a buzz in the place. It keeps people fresh”.
Millais has a number of Specialist Leaders of Education (SLEs) who are deployed to support their colleagues at primary and secondary schools as far afield as Eastbourne – wherever West Sussex County Council felt help was needed.
Dr Lodwick said: “When I go to different meetings – and I’ve been to a number of meetings during the month I’ve been here – it seems that, because Millais is a teaching school, Millais is looked to give school-to-school support.
“For us it’s important because you’re always reflective and you’re always there and you share in good practice, so what I would say I like about it is it’s very outward looking.”
As well as ensuring her colleagues at other schools receive the best support possible, Dr Lodwick said she felt the sense of community it encouraged was also important.
She said: “I think, for me, it’s like the influence you can have. With my primary colleagues locally I can see us working on transition so that is eased for the local students in terms of assessment, making sure they don’t slip back.
“We can share good practice because you know there is some fabulous work in the primary area and I think we can learn from that but they can learn from us as well in terms of the way in which we assess and maybe share assessments and perhaps try and get some kind of consistency.
“I think primaries are so small and that’s the advantage of being such a big school – you’ve got that capacity to really go out there, whereas they are more limited.”
Being part of a community ranks high in Dr Lodwick’s list of priorities. She moved to Horsham just before the start of term because, as she said, “if you’re going to be quite a central part of the community, that’s important. I kind of share then the knowledge of the local people”.
She wrote to Millais’s neighbours in and around Depot Road to thank them for their patience during the two years of building work to expand the school and said she would like to invite them to view the work once it was finished.
The use of the school once lessons were over was also something Dr Lodwick wished to examine.
She said: “I’d like to have more community activities in the school. What I’d like to do is have more opportunities for the local people to use the facilities because I think schools are quite under-utilised. You have evening classes but for quite a lot of the year the schools do not have as much on as there could be.”
Millais is renowned for its language curriculum, teaching Fench, German, Spanish, Italian, Japanese and Chinese, and Dr Lodwick said she would like to explore launching language classes for adults.
In addition, there are plans for a STEM event – science, technology, engineering and maths – at the end of the year, which she hoped would raise the school’s profile with local employers. Dr Lodwick said: “I just want to build that up because that gives opportunities for the community to see the students positively and vice versa.”
With all that in the future, Millais’ new headteacher certainly has her work laid out – and she’s thoroughly enjoying it.
She said: “People told me it was the best job and it is the best job. It’s the best job for me because of the influence and impact I could possibly have on students’ lives and staff’s lives for that matter. I can’t sum it up more than I absolutely love it.”
Poetic way to hand over the reins
Dr Lodwick took over at Millais when Leon Nettley retired after more than 20 years at the school.
Describing the hand-over as “the best you could ever have”, she explained how her predecessor left her with a rather special parting gift – a poem.
Dr Lodwick said: “I spent June and July here, a good number of the days here, I came about twice or three times a week and he was superb in terms of just taking me to different areas, introducing me to the local primary schools, introducing me to the local heads.
“He gave me a gift and left me a poem about dreaming and holding your dreams and making sure you always aspire and reach for the top. And on my first assembly with the girls, I read it out to them.”
Mr Nettley left quite a legacy, with Millais having been rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted for five years. Dr Lodwick said: “My aim, having such an excellent outstanding school, is to take it forward on that basis. To capitalise, to make the most of everything he achieved over the years and take it forward.”
Accepting mobile phones in the classroom
The topic of mobile phones in school has proved somewhat divisive among teachers.
Some have embraced the constantly evolving technology while others regard it with the same cautious eye as they would a large and venomous spider.
Dr Alison Lodwick chose to take a pragmatic approach to the issue, backed by some strict ground rules.
She said: “First of all, you can’t dis-invent them so my perspective is this – mobile technology is in schools now and the students need to be taught how to use them appropriately.
“I would say I have a pragmatic approach to mobile technology.
“They can be very effective in the classroom if used appropriately and therefore our role is to educate them in their proper use. That goes from using them at the right times in school, perhaps at break time, lunch time or whatever, or when they do use them in the classroom, using them for proper use, not something else.”
The online safety of the students was also an issue which Dr Lodwick recognised, saying teachers had a duty to ensure the youngsters knew where the dangers of social media and the like lay. Then there was the need for students to understand when and where it was appropriate to use their phones.
She said: “I’m not saying it isn’t a challenge – it is a challenge. They bring their mobile phones to school here but there are restrictions upon when they can use them and they don’t abuse it. There are sanctions and if they don’t listen they get a warning and after that they have it taken off them. They like their mobile phones so much they don’t risk it!”
While the issue of mobile phones was well in hand, government funding remained an ongoing problem.
In April, former headteacher Leon Nettley was one of 42 West Sussex heads who signed a letter warning of a “crisis” unless secondary schools were given their fair share of Government grants.
The county is the fourth-worst funded area in England due to what teachers and politicians called an “outdated” grant system. The letter warned cost-cutting could only be achieved by reducing staffing and increasing class sizes.
Dr Lodwick said she and other heads recently met with Horsham MP Jeremy Quin to discuss the matter.
She said: “He took on board the issues because the funding for schools has not changed since 2010. Pay is going up, pensions are going up, so there’s going to be a situation.
“That situation was explained and we shared our views with the MP. He was very receptive. Obviously there needs to be a recognition about the fact West Sussex has such a low level of funding and a recognition that things need to change. The reality of it of course is with the politicians.”
End of two-year expansion project is finally in sight...
It has been two years since West Sussex County Council announced it would be spending £14million on a major improvement project at Millais.
Students at the consistently outstanding school had been working in part out of 13 temporary huts, which the council ruled were “structurally failing”.
Former headteacher Leon Nettley played a large part in securing the improvements.
In an interview with the County Times before he retired, Mr Nettley said: “When I first joined [Millais] it was about 1,000 pupils. County wanted us to expand and so we had 13 temporary huts on site.
“They were starting to look tired and not fit for modern teaching. I said ‘you can’t expect us to deliver this performance in this accommodation’. It’s about replacing the old accommodation; it’s not growth.”
Last October, a three-storey teaching block was opened and the remainder of the work – including two science labs – will be finished before the students return after half-term.
New headteacher Dr Alison Lodwick chuckled as she explained why everyone at Millais was pleased the end of the building work was in sight.
She said: “Since I’ve been here, the builders have cut through cables and all sorts of different things! Our bells don’t work at the moment because there’s no connection so it will be nice...
“But to be fair, if I took you on a tour of the school into the grounds, they’re just finishing off now bedding things down. So it will be lovely to have it all open and there will be a new front to the school then.”
Dr Lodwisk said the he new buildings would not mean any extra intake of students, adding Millais would stay an 11-16 school, with no plans to introduce a sixth-form.
She said: “It’s just for the facilities. The facilities I think were built in the 1930s. It is of sufficient years so the fabric of the building had to change.
“The new block is really state-of-the-art. It’s white corridors. It gives you a bit of a campus feel to the school. It’s more modern, it’s more open. The school has grown over the years. It’s 1,500 in size, which is sort of average for an 11-16 school.
“That’s a big school, so when you’ve got movement of students it’s helping to facilitate the nice flow of it round.
“At the moment we have a one-way system because of all the building, and the girls are great so they kind of accommodate that. But if you can imagine, at the start it will be nice to move freely between areas.”
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