Tuesday, 21 September 2021

Head enjoys creating new community school

KAREN EDWARDS relished the challenge of establishing a new primary school in Caversham because, she says, it was

KAREN EDWARDS relished the challenge of establishing a new primary school in Caversham because, she says, it was an opportunity to create something special for the community.

She is the headteacher of the Heights Primary School, a much-needed free school which opened in temporary premises off Gosbrook Road in Lower Caversham in September 2014.

Before and since then there has been controversy over the possible locations of the school’s permanent site, particularly the final choice of Mapledurham playing fields, off Woodcote Road.

But, says 49-year-old Mrs Edwards, very little has been heard about how the school was established and the success it has already achieved.

When it opened, the school had just 66 children in two reception classes and year one.

Now the roll is 120 and growing as 50 children will join each year until 2020 when there will be a total of  350 pupils from reception to year six.

The school, which will remain at its temporary site until at least July 2017, effectively doubled in size in October with the addition of a first floor so there are now seven classrooms. The staff consists of five teachers and nine teaching assistants.

This is a transformation of the former Caversham Nursery, which vacated in 2009 and the site deteriorated and became a target for vandals.

When planning permission for the new school was granted in June 2014 — only nine weeks before it was due to open — the 0.4-hectare site had no mains water or power and the buildings were burnt-out shells.

In August that year the pre- modelled school buildings were installed.

Mrs Edwards, who was appointed after seven years as headteacher of Sacred Heart Primary School in Henley, recalls: “We didn’t have mains power, so for the first six weeks of the children being here we had a generator. For the first week or two we had water bowsers.”

She herself had to give up her office for music lessons, one-to-one meetings or staff planning time.

Mrs Edwards says: “Our aim was to build a school that was warm, inviting and vibrant and by the end of the first week it was.”

When recruiting staff she looked for “liked-minded” teachers who shared her vision. “You’ve got to have people with that kind of mentality, determination and sense of humour,” says Mrs Edwards. “It was an opportunity to build a school within a community that didn’t have one. I don’t think I saw it as daunting; I saw it as exciting.”

She has no regrets about leaving her old Catholic primary, saying: “There’s never a good time to leave a school — you’ll always miss it because you don’t go into education for any other reason than it’s such a wonderful profession to be part of.

“But there’s no looking back. Yes, there’s still a degree of uncertainty about our permanent location but there’s no uncertainty about the school. It’s so well established — we’re thriving.”

The school was set up to serve the area of Caversham Heights and Mapledurham as a free school with funding from the Department for Education.

It has the support of Reading Borough Council, which required a long-term solution to the shortage of primary school places in Caversham.

The Heights provides a school in the west of Caversham after many years of children having to commute to one of the eight primary schools in the east of the area.

Mrs Edwards, who lives in Binfield Heath, says: “There was an incredible need in west Caversham as there was no primary school. All the primary schools in Caversham are good to outstanding but they’re all in the east and there is quite a significant number of children who are not able to get into their catchment school.

“The Heights Primary Trust consulted local residents and parents and identified where the need was and how great it was.

“They wanted a school for the community — in the community — and that’s what we believe we’re building. The community is at the heart of everything we do and having a school in the community draws everyone together.

“It’s a privilege to be part of creating something that’s needed and important to so many people — parents, children and grandparents.”

Mrs Edwards, who has 25 years of experience in education, says parents have been hugely supportive, raising £24,000 since the school opened with sponsored runs, fairs and quiz nights.

“We’re a free school only by name — we’re state funded and completely inclusive,” she says.

“We have children with a range of different educational needs. We have such a wonderful diversity, which is an example of the make-up of Reading as a town and a borough.

“There are certain benefits because you can move away, to a degree, from the national curriculum but we’re following the curriculum.”

In August, the Education Funding Agency announced that Mapledurham playing fields were to be the school’s permanent site following public consultation.

The land was one of five possible locations, with the others being High Ridge in Upper Warren Avenue (the agency’s original choice and which it bought), Albert Road park, Bugs Bottom and part of Dyson’s Farm, near the junction of Kidmore Road and Shepherds Lane. The last site was the only one outside Reading borough as it is in South Oxfordshire.

The consultation closed in May after 4,376 people responded. Of these, 3,042 were in favour of the playing fields while 1,063 were against, the lowest number of objections for any site.

However, the Mapledurham Playing Fields Action Group, which campaigned against use of the land, has warned that it may take legal action. The land was given to the community in trust for leisure purposes in 1938 so the campaigners claim the choice of the site requires the approval of the Charity Commission.

A previous bid to build a school on the land was defeated in 2006.

Mrs Edwards admits that “very valid” concerns were raised but says all parties are working together to find a compromise.

She says: “Parents have had to compromise every single day and realise what they are gaining is potentially much greater than what they are  sacrificing.”

While negotiations continue, the school faces its own challenges caused by the nature of its temporary site, which is not in the catchment area.

There is no parking on site, so many parents and children have to walk to and from school and there is no playing field so the pupils play sport at St Anne’s Catholic Primary School in nearby Washington Road.

Mrs Edwards says: “We’re working to make the best of an unusual and challenging situation.”

“The more that we can work together as schools, not just primaries but also the secondaries, to share resources and specialisms the better.”

Looking back on the last 16 months, she says: “I can’t believe we have come this far. I feel incredibly proud and grateful as wherever I turn I’ve got massive support.

“The most important thing for us is we have really happy children. If you have got happy, engaged children then they are going to learn more. Quite literally they are reaching the heights.

“It’s a reflection on the children, the support we have from their parents and the quality of teaching.

“It has been a very exciting but very special experience and I think we’re going from strength-to-strength.”

• In a statement issued exclusively to the Henley Standard on Wednesday, the Heights said: “The intention was to be in our new permanent home by September 2017.

“However, based on information supplied by the Education Funding Agency just before Christmas and the discussions that we have had with them, we have now reached the opinion that this timescale is unlikely to be achieved. We felt it was important to share this information and its implications with parents.

“Various survey works commenced on Mapledurham playing fields before Christmas and are due to be completed this month [when] we will be in a better position to provide more detail on the plans and the benefits for the wider community. The local community will be invited to have their say.”

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