Stronger together

  • 13th February 2024

Artist’s impression of Bedford Greenacre Independent School

Ian Daniel reports on the successful merger of two schools, with insights on how it was achieved

In 2013, the governors of Rushmoor School and St Andrew’s School, both based in Bedford, formed an alliance, so that one governing body would oversee both schools, with one leadership team. As head at Rushmoor, I was then appointed principal of both schools. I explained to the joint community that there were many difficulties to overcome, but my most important message was that the education and welfare of the pupils was at the centre of all decisions.

Over the past 10 years, the pupils have been very open to the benefits that the merger has brought and in May 2021 the two schools formally merged under one new name, Bedford Greenacre Independent School. Changing the name was key in order to build a new brand identity and it would have been unfair to choose one name over the other. Currently, the pupils are spread across two small urban sites, but in the next academic year they will move to a new £24 million, 40-acre facility, which will be the final piece in a very successful merger.

Good communications

Success didn’t just happen and I believe that communication with parents has been key. I routinely will be seen outside the school gates chatting to parents. I aim to be approachable and want to keep parents involved, crediting the parent council as being invaluable in the decision-making process, which has been particularly important when combining a girls’ school with a boys’ school and navigating the introduction of a co-educational environment.

Open debate is important to find positive solutions; listening to the views of parents, staff and pupils is the most important aspect of leadership. From the outset, the school was keen to promote the wider opportunities as a positive factor in the merger, helping benefit pupils by allowing them to forge new friendships across clubs, performances, school teams, fixtures and residential trips.

Of course, there were difficulties along the way, the first being overstaffing, with redundancies having to be made in the early days of the alliance. Streamlining has ultimately led to greater efficiencies, with specialist staff working across the two sites, leading to parity in the standard of teaching and learning.

Boosting the roll

Raising pupil numbers was important and has been managed by improving marketing, such as introducing a social media presence and ensuring that the school leadership is hands-on in meeting prospective families and being more visible at community events. The leadership wants to convey to the wider public that, as a non-selective school, we cater for all abilities by providing an individual approach.

Day-to-day management of the two schools was challenging for a number of years, policies had to be combined, expectations had to be adhered to, the “we always do it this way” from some staff had to be challenged and workable solutions found. I felt that some saw the alliance as a Rushmoor takeover, which was not the case, so I was keen to promote debate between the leadership and staff to allow solutions to be found that would ultimately work in the best interests of the pupils. So a flexible approach was adopted and this is why, after a number of years, it was agreed that the junior pupils from both school sites would be brought together on one site, as the school moves fully towards co-education and in preparation for the move to the new building. It was agreed that this decision would be the least disruptive for the younger pupils, which has proved correct as the combined junior school is a thriving environment. Of particular note is that junior staff from across the two sites are now very happy to be working together, using their areas of expertise more effectively and providing the pupils with greater opportunities in many areas.

Good scale

The merger brought with it economies of scale; while two small schools might have struggled with some financial elements, such as introducing modern school management information systems, or improving IT resources for pupils, working together has meant that this has not been a problem. The end result means that improved systems allow staff to monitor pupils’ progress better and to develop more efficient working methods. For example, pupils immediately had laptops and smartboards updated when the new structure was established. Small improvements, such as IT facilities, hold huge benefits to pupils who have specific learning needs, but also help to provide extension opportunities for gifted and able pupils. When the final step of the merger takes place, these economies will be even greater as the school will only have one site to maintain and new energy-efficient technologies are being incorporated to help further.

Initially, there was a ‘them and us’ mentality, but with the passing of time, and movement of both staff and pupils between the two sites, this has ceased. Now with the new name and branding, the staff and pupils are proud of what the alliance has become.

The new brand

Getting the rebranding correct was crucial, using Bedford in the name is geographical, but also underlines that Rushmoor and St Andrew’s had very long histories in the town. Greenacre links to the semi-rural setting of the new site and also Greenacre was the family name of the previous landowners dating back to the 14th century. The logo shows a tree to signify growth, with its roots used as a reference to the school’s strong past. The vertical lines signify stability, longevity and strength for the future. Interest in the school has soared due to the rebranding and the imminent move, as well as the reputation of individual support that the school provides, having been rated as excellent in all areas in its 2022 inspection.

Pupils’ voices have contributed to the successful merger; the leadership team is interested in their opinions, such as including them in the design process for the rebranded uniform. Another example happened in 2016, following consultation with pupils, a joint sixth form was opened. Since its introduction, new subjects have been included in line with pupils’ wants and needs and this has meant it has been a successful addition, with the most recent cohort being the largest yet.

The need to adapt

Over the past 10 years, the willingness to adapt plans as the educational landscape has developed has been vitally important. Moving to a fully co-educational structure will be the biggest change with the move to the new site, so the school is already timetabling co-educational lessons where logistics allow. The school has also had to adapt plans when timings have been pushed aside due to problems like planning issues creating uncertainty. The pandemic caused issues too, but was managed well with a virtual full timetable, online assemblies, competitions, talent shows and sharing news via social media to maintain the school community spirit.

Since 2013, a great amount of determination and perseverance to overcome difficulties has been required; I have highlighted the importance of having governors who have wide-ranging areas of expertise as a contributory factor to the success of the merger.

And more

Through the alliance, to the formal merger and rebranding, one point has been made clear. The school is far more than the facilities it has, it is about a dedicated staff, who go above and beyond to ensure that pupils are pushed to reach their potential. Any schools that plan to merge will face challenges, but putting the pupils at the centre of all decisions will be the key to overcoming them.

Ian Daniel is principal of Bedford Greenacre Independent School.

Ian Daniel

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