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End of an era heralds a new age

A Personal View
A Personal View

The end of any school year is always emotional. Teaching is a surprising roller-coaster of human interactions – full of laughter, occasional panic and a linger feeling of never quite having caught up with all the jobs on the to-do list.

Other careers may well be the same, but in schools we have a more pronounced rhythm to our working lives – from the fresh start of September to the bone-deep weariness of July.

This isn’t a complaint, you understand. The job of a teacher has many special perks. We deal in optimism – working with young people whose futures are ahead of them, working alongside smart adults, and enjoying a generous allocation of holiday time in which to recuperate.

As I’ve mentioned previously, this end-of-term will have special poignancy for many people – especially the staff and governors in the middle schools where the doors close for good next Thursday. An era ends.

It’s worth remembering that big educational changes have happened before. I often remind myself that King Edward VI School has been around since 1550 – first at its original site in Eastgate Street, then Northgate Street, then Vinefields (now home to St James Middle School), before arriving in the early seventies at its current Grove Road home.

Ours is a school that has seen changes come and go. And one of the biggest was in 1971 – a date that former members of staff still tell me about. As Suffolk County Council decided to move from selection to comprehensive education, and to move to a three-tier structure, the old grammar schools closed - as they did in most parts of England.

In readiness, the boys’ grammar school had begun to reduce its numbers of boarders, many of them from military families or far-flung villages. A year before the transition, the formidable final head of the grammar school era – Robert Elliott - retired. A dynamic young man with new ideas and a firm grasp of the comprehensive ideal was appointed. This was David Pullen, widely praised for his calm but inspiring ability to lead the merger of schools in a new educational era.

Thus the grammar school boys joined the students on the site of the Silver Jubilee School. Founded in 1935, this was a school of two halves. The office that is currently mine was once the abode of the legendary headmistress of the girls’ school – the late Miss Crocker. Just across reception was the office of the headmaster of Silver Jubilee Boys’ School. His was another name that still resonates across the town’s collective memory – Mr Napier.

Then, from 1970, in came David Pullen with the formidable task of weaving a new school from disparate groups of students, plus staff who had in many cases given up previous positions of responsibility.

It could have been a bloodbath. Instead, a new educational era was ushered in.

And so it is today, as we enter our final few days of the three-tier system, with hundreds of fresh-faced children waiting to embrace their full secondary futures from the age of 11 at Sybil Andrews Academy, St Benedict’s or here at King Edward’s.

It has been a process long talked about and sometimes turbulent. But we are almost there. As I have said before, we all owe a great debt to the headteachers, staff and governors of the closing middle schools, and to all the parents who have had faith in our mission.

This has not been an easy process for anyone. But the fact that we have arrived at the end of the year, plans securely in place, new staff appointed, and a breathtaking range of new opportunities for our children – this is a credit to everyone who has supported the process.

Across Suffolk, the school gates will close next week, some for the last time. In September a new age begins. Here’s wishing success to all the young people who are part of this exciting next phase, and thanks to all who have made it happen.

-- Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds