Whatever the swirling gloom in so many of the news stories we read – terrorism, floods, political turmoil – 2016 looks set to be a year of excitement and optimism in our part of the world.
After years of talk and planning, the long-awaited move to a two-tier education system will finally be completed in the summer. From September 2016, most 11-year-olds in Suffolk will be settled into a full secondary school, with just one transition point in their education.
These students will benefit from being taught specialist subjects by the same teachers who are preparing older students for their GCSE and A-level examinations. At the same time, our primary schools will be able to teach the full national curriculum right through to the end of Year 6 just as the national curriculum was designed for them to do.
Already the real pioneers of the new system have stepped up to take their place. These are the Year 5 pupils who are now housed in shiny new classrooms, with bright new facilities. In the past few weeks I’ve been to see some of these pupils at Great Whelnetham and at Westgate Primary Schools. You couldn’t ask for happier children or for teachers more committed to making sure that all the basics in literacy, numeracy, science, PE and modern languages are mastered, so that Suffolk’s KS2 test results finally begin to move well above national averages.
It’s the same at our school. We spent the first training day of the new year planning for the arrival of our first cohort of Year 7 and 8s in September. Teachers couldn’t be more excited at the opportunity to work with students of a younger age, building their independence, and getting to know them properly two years before they choose their GCSE options.
We’re excited too at the new building work and refurbishment that will give great new facilities to our new students, including social and eating areas for younger students, plus the benefits of working alongside and learning from students in the Sixth Form who will be role-models and mentors.
And it’s not just us. St Benedict’s will consolidate its first stage of hosting Year 7 and 8 students and the new Sybil Andrews academy, led by an outstanding school leader in Andy Prestoe, will have a fabulous building. At last the residents of the Moreton Hall development will have their own school and their children won’t need to travel into town each day.
All of this is exciting and a tribute to the staff who have held their nerve and worked so purposefully towards the transition, learning from other phases in Suffolk, and making sure that we work in collaboration rather than competition.
It’s a tribute also to the powerful sense of trust in us from parents who, at a time when there have sometimes seemed too many uncertainties, have stuck with their primary teachers ready for the completion of a long drawn-out process.
From September these primaries, along with two special schools, and three secondary schools will form a newly-strengthened Bury Schools Partnership, working together to make sure that whichever school a child may be at, she gets the full benefits of the rich opportunities in sport, science, the arts, debating, Latin, Mandarin and all of the other special projects we have lined up for the years ahead.
There are those of course who would rather Suffolk had taken the safer route, that it hadn’t had the courage to change. But, thanks to admirable leadership from the headteachers of St Louis, St James and Hardwick Middle Schools, there has been a collective ambition that this transition had to happen and that the children at its heart will benefit hugely.
It’s going to be a momentous year in education and I for one couldn’t be prouder to be a part of what the inspiring staff in and around Bury St Edmunds have achieved so far. Hold on tight for this final phase: it is going to be amazing.
-- Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds