When I speak to James Donaldson it’s been barely a week since The Beaulieu Park School opened its doors. As the school’s principal, he had just come out of what sounded like a whirlwind experience of headship – Donaldson’s first – as the school was designed, constructed and prepared to welcome an initial intake of 60 reception pupils at the start of the 2018/19 school year.
The Beaulieu Park School forms part of the new Beaulieu district currently taking shape on the outskirts of Chelmsford. Created by the developers Countryside and L&Q, Beaulieu will eventually be the site of 3,600 new homes alongside a series of shops, local amenities and community sites. The school is situated beside Beaulieu Square, a public space at the heart of the development, alongside the Bright Horizons day nursery and the Kip McGrath Education Centre, which will provide 11+ and secondary phase tuition services up to GCSE level.
What makes The Beaulieu Park School especially notable in this part of the country is that it’s been conceived as Essex’s first all through school. The school’s first year 7 cohort are due to start in September 2019, and plans are underway to offer sixth form provision to those year 7s once they reach the end of KS4 in 2024.
Prior to his appointment, Donaldson had previously served as deputy headteacher at The Boswells School – a nearby secondary belonging the same trust, The Chelmsford Learning Partnership, that oversees The Beaulieu Park School and five others. Donaldson remembers being part of the team that was successfully named as the preferred bidder for the school over a number of other academy chains, in a process that concluded in May 2017. And thus was the starting gun fired. As Donaldson recalls, “At that point, only the groundworks on the building had been completed. The speed of the build since then has been quite incredible – 12 months from summer 2017 to now. Our secondary school is still under construction, but due to be finished in February. It’s all been very quick.”
Following the agreement of an initial plan for the school agreed between Essex County Council and developer Kier, Donaldson and others proceeded to attend weekly meetings with representatives from both to discuss and set out what was needed in the school and its specifications, right down to the type of plug sockets.
“We were able to specify what we wanted in the school to a large degree,” says Donaldson. “The layout was somewhat fixed, but in terms of what we wanted, there was a lot of input from us.”
Were there any aspects of the school plans that Donaldson can remember pushing particularly hard for? Being a former drama teacher, his answer is perhaps somewhat expected. “Learning beyond the classroom is incredibly important to the culture of the school – things like sport, performance and the creative arts,” he says. “The specification of our performance spaces, what they’d feature in terms of sound and vision, and the requirement for them to facilitate high level school productions and shows – it was really important that we got that right.
“We therefore spent quite a lot of time talking about what we needed. The school remains under construction, so we’re still working on getting things right with the developers, but it’s all going well. I’ve spent time looking up the correct mounts for the speakers we’re using in one of the performance spaces – that’s the type of thing that really matters to us.”
Donaldson becomes particularly enthused when asked what the school’s all through nature will mean in terms of the pupils’ daily learning experiences: “It gives us opportunities that other state schools don’t have,” he says. “Our primary children will have access to all the facilities on the secondary site, be it the sports facilities, performing arts areas, technology rooms or science labs. That’s been a major appeal of the school for parents.
“Yes, it’s a new and shiny building, but there’s also a clear and tangible way in which their children will be able to access better facilities for their learning.”
With the school currently attended by just a small fraction of the planned pupil population, children who are at the very start of their schooling, how confident is he that the school will make good on its all through promise? “We’d hope to retain all 60 of our children,” says Donaldson, though he concedes, “There is local competition in the form of two of the most successful grammar schools in England, which is something for us to be mindful of. But with the approach we’re planning in secondary, by the time our first pupils come through I’m sure they’ll want to continue in what I’m certain will be an outstanding school.”
Following the end of the 2017/18 academic year, Donaldson proceeded to go on holiday with his family for 12 nights. Upon his return, he joined the team finalising the primary build every day until its completion.
“It’s not as glamorous as some might think,” Donaldson notes.“We spent time sweeping up, preparing classrooms, taking deliveries, unboxing items, assembling flatpack furniture – everything necessary to ensure the primary school and classrooms for our two reception groups were 100% ready.”
In Donaldson’s telling, it was an intensive learning process. “When we finally got in, things needed to be done in order to pass buildings control. Fire extinguishers needed to be fitted, for example, but we couldn’t do that until the builders handed the building over. Installations of hand driers – all these details which, had I joined another existing school as principal, I wouldn’t have had to think about.”
Happily, however, these early days for the school have proceeded smoothly – barring one minor incident during an event the school hosted for parents. “We held a picnic for our families as a way of saying hello and to give them a chance to get to know each other.” Donaldson remembers. “With half an hour to go until start time, we realised that we had no water. What we hadn’t realised was that the building is so smart, you have to actively tell it that you’re using it on a Saturday – otherwise, it turns the services off. Fortunately, however, our premises manager is extremely well versed in the school’s building management system and was able to come out and help us.”
At this stage, what aspect of the school would Donaldson say he’s proudest of? “The most impressive thing for me is the way our two reception teachers and LSAs have put together their classrooms. It’s the atmosphere they’ve helped create of the school being not just a fantastic learning environment, but also a welcoming space for children just starting school.
“The school provides us with an excellent blank canvas, but it’s the people – the teachers, staff and families – that really make it a school and make it a community. We’re very lucky to have appointed the people we have.”