THE first major change Stuart Maginnis implemented on becoming headteacher of Farnham Heath End School earlier this month was to ban mobile phones from the school site.
It didn’t immediately endear him to his new school population - but, a few weeks on, Stuart says his decision is already reaping rewards; the first step towards changing the culture at the struggling secondary school and setting pupils on what he terms “the road to great”.
“When I came in I was uncomfortable with the school’s very open mobile phone policy,” Stuart told The Herald.
“I went into the restaurant and students, rather than talking and engaging and having a nice time, were sitting down playing games on their phone and walking along corridors taking selfies.
“I don’t like that, and it’s not the culture I want in the school, so I banned the use of mobile phones from day one.
“There was some stuff on social media about ‘who is this guy, coming in and taking our phones’. But the students and the staff were fantastic - they just got on with it, and you come and have lunch with them now and they’re talking to each other. That’s what schools are about.”
Heath End was handed a ‘requires improvement’ rating by Ofsted after its last inspection in February 2016 and stubbornly lags behind its more illustrious neighbours All Hallows and Weydon in the GCSE league tables.
But in a bid to reverse its fortunes, the school joined the Weydon Multi-Academy Trust (MAT) in April 2017, and following Nick Phillips’ departure as headteacher in December, the path was cleared for Stuart to take over the reigns.
A product of high-flying Weydon School, Stuart first joined Weydon as a trainee teacher 18 years ago and worked his way up from PE teacher to head of year, assistant head, deputy head and eventually co-principal before moving across the town to become a principal in his own right.
“I can’t beat about it, the results are poor here, and because of that people - pupils and teachers - don’t want to come here,” he said.
“The biggest challenge I have for the school, financially, is at the moment we have between 160 and 180 students in a year group. My target for September is to get to 220 - and that’s for two reasons.
“The obvious one is finance, to get more money into the school to develop, because the site’s tired. And then secondly, if I’ve got more kids coming in, we can hire more staff and get some really cracking, outstanding teachers here.
“I need bums on seats and it’s going to be an exciting journey!”
A key part of Stuart’s focus is giving students a reason to feel proud - of their own achievements as well as the fabric of the school itself - and in coming weeks he expects to see ambitious plans come forward to revitalise the Heath End School site.
This comes after Surrey County Council signed off plans in December to expand the school by an additional 30 places per year - including the promise of a new “world class” sports hall and additional dining space, classrooms, science and ICT facilities, as well as a new specialist learning needs area.
“This school has so much potential,” Stuart added. “We have loads of really exciting plans, and the young people have been so welcoming, they’re just fantastic. But can we truly say have we given them a school they can be proud of?
“If we’re being honest, it’s a bit depressing isn’t it, to see the school in its present state. It’s true and I need to have a huge push on getting this place right, so that our students get the best deal because they’re great.”
Stuart credits a large part of Heath End’s newfound optimism to its membership of the Weydon MAT, adding the school is already sharing teaching staff and resources with its fellow MAT members Weydon, The Ridgeway School and Woolmer Hill in Haslemere.
But despite the obvious influence of Weydon, he recognises that Heath End has its own unique character and is clear that the school must retain its own voice.
“I’m trying to replicate Weydon’s success in terms of having a national reputation and a strive for excellence, but it needs to be with a Farnham Heath End touch,” he said.
“What I’m not going to create is a Weydon ‘mark two’. I’m going to create the demand for excellence that Weydon has, but in Farnham Heath End’s style.
“There isn’t a more privileged job in society than looking after other people’s children. We are the custodian of their futures, and I have to make sure the doors don’t get shut.
“If they want to go to university, then they can go to university, if they don’t then they don’t, but they should have the choice, and therefore I have to work them hard academically.
“But schools should be about their soul, and that comes from the football team, the netball team, the drama society, the debating club - that’s what I need to bring into this place, a bit of soul.”