Sitting at my kitchen table, during half term, I have been reflecting on the past 18 months since we opened and in particular about all the various ‘news’ items about Free Schools over the last few weeks. I do get particularly cross with the way that education in general, but the Free School agenda in particular, has become such a massive political football.
When I talk to parents (& as a parent myself), what every parent wants is the very best possible for their child. And that can usually be summed up in a couple of simple objectives; they want their child to be happy and educated so that they can be the best they can be.
For me, that is what the Free School agenda is all about. At its heart, it was designed to allow people to set up a new school to fit the needs of a local community. Now, whether that is a highly academic school with Latin on the curriculum, or a Primary School or a school with a faith focus, surely they are addressing a need? There needs to be checks and balances, and accountability, but that holds for all schools.
The thing is, every free school is different and using one to beat all is just ridiculous. I have a student at my school who was shut in a room during break an lunchtimes at another secondary school before coming to us. Why were they punished and excluded from their friends in this way? Because they were being bullied by a group of other students and this was the school’s way to stop this young person from being bullied. Yes, you read that right – punished for being a victim. Why isn’t that used to berate non-free schools?
Sandymoor was set up by a small group of local parents, who wanted to increase choice and provide a local school for families who were making a choice by moving out of area to find a school they wanted to send their children to. I do not make any exaggerated claims about what we are; we aim to be a local school, for the local community, providing the best possible experience we can for the students in our care, helping them to be the best they can be.
And in that way, like so many others, we are just the same as every other school in the country. We deal with children from every background represented locally, just like the other secondary schools in the area. I want nothing but the very best for the children at my school and I know that I can do that better when I work collaboratively with the local schools and authority. Detractors of Free Schools talk about how they take money away from other local schools; we are funded on the same basis as every academy, with a per pupil funding formula. The only way I am taking money from other local schools is when a child comes to my school rather than another. Again, that is identical to every local school. Except with one exception – in our situation, we have a significant number of students who would have been educated out of authority, so it could be argued that we are actually bringing central government money into the authority. And, with a new school building going up fast, we are also helping to raise the standards of educational establishments in the area. If you trawl through the news archives, you will find allegations that we will drain in excess of £3 million from the council. It is this sort of ridiculous allegation that just makes me furious.
We’ve also been accused of feeding our students fast food from a well-known chain. Again, utter rot! And I know that my Catering Manager is furious about these allegations too. Headlines nationally about how Free Schools need to have greater controls imposed on them about healthy food don’t help. We want our students to be the very best they can be, in a friendly, safe environment. Our food is sources as locally as possible, with our meat, for example, coming from a local butcher’s firm. It is cooked fresh on site, prepared fresh daily and served to the students by our catering manager & assistant. The food is served on china plates (not the ‘prison slop trays’ you see in a number of ‘ordinary’ schools we should, apparently, be more like) and the students are expected to sit and eat their food together, as a social activity. We have cashless catering in place, so our FSM children are not highlighted in any way.
And over 80% of our students have our hot meals. That’s the ‘aspirational’ target Jamie Oliver wants the government to aim for in all schools. If you want to see happy, healthy young people, have a look in our dining hall during lunchtime!
Yes, there are some free schools that have appointed unqualified people into posts, particularly the high profile ones around currently, about head teachers appointed with no qualifications &/or no experience in schools. The last 18 months have been some of the hardest months in my career and I have over 23 years experience in a wide variety of schools around the country, including inner London comprehensives. I have two degrees (my original Physics degree from Imperial College and a Masters in Education) and my head teacher’s qualification, the NPQH. Have they helped me in my role? Most definitely yes, but not necessarily in the obvious ways. Resilience, perseverance and dogged determination have been much more important. I have had to know what I’m doing, but anyone who is a head teacher will appreciate that, every day, things come across your path that you have no direct experience of. You just have to rely on experience and the collaboration of colleagues to make the right calls. I actually feel sorry for those people who were given the responsibility for leading a school, any school, without that background of experience and support. I can only imagine how often they did not sleep with worrying about an issue and how many times they must have cried through frustration or doubt because they did not know what to do.
As for the other staff? Well, my Catering Manager has all the qualifications needed to run our kitchen and my Business & Finance Manager is a qualified accountant. Why wouldn’t I appoint someone who had the right qualifications, if they were the best person for the job? Again, politics gets in the way here – people think they are being helpful by saying that independent schools have unqualified teachers delivering lessons, so what’s the problem … but people see the word ‘independent’ and forget to then see the principle being laid out, which is about the best person for the job. But getting the best person for the job is about recruiting the best people. And that means having a school where teachers want to work at. The last time we recruited for three teaching posts we received over 120 quality applications, from experienced & fully qualified teachers. Why wouldn’t I appoint a qualified teacher in that instance? But just because a teacher is qualified and experienced does not mean that everything will be fine! A quick Google and you will find references to a teacher I had to fire for gross misconduct – this was a highly experienced and qualified teacher, who came with excellent references and was the best person interviewed for the post.
To answer a particularly ridiculous, politically motivated tweet, no, Free Schools don’t have magical recruitment powers. We are just like any other school, trying to pick the best people to deliver the vision we have for our young people.
And the latest thing is that Free Schools need to be told to deliver the national curriculum. . . When I spoke to my brother about this, his reaction was: “But surely you’re delivering it and some?”. (Paraphrased there). Again I say, why wouldn’t I teach the national curriculum? Our students are going to take national exams, whether GCSEs, A-levels, BTECs or whatever they all get re-branded into. Why? Because Sandymoor School leavers will be competing for jobs against school leavers from other schools. Their CVs need to be easily compared to other applicants – when a boss, who went to school decades ago, looks through a pile of application forms, anyone who has qualifications that they don’t understand is much more likely to be added to the pile of rejections on the floor.
For me, the freedoms I have as a leader of a Free School is the ability to deliver the curriculum in a different way, trying to tackle the things that everyone agrees is wrong with our education system. Like, for example, the fact that business leaders say every year that school leavers cannot transfer skills to new situations, or that they lack basic literacy & numeracy skills. Or that, year on year, tens of thousands of 16-year olds are forced to sit exams they know they will fail (& that all the people they trust know they will fail) and just because they happen to be 16.
Sandymoor students will take the exams that will enable them to compete on an even playing field with others, but they will also leave with the skills to help them stand out and be a positive influence wherever they find themselves.
And in that respect, our students are luckier than the school – all I want is a level playing field, where I can get on with the mind-blowingly difficult, but inspirational and hugely rewarding task of leading my school and helping the staff & students be the very best they can be, day in and day out.
Having been through the whole process (I was appointed after the school went into pre-opening phase), I can say that the checks and balances are there, too. I have sat in a panel interview, proving to experts from the DfE that our curriculum was rigorous and would provide the best outcomes for students before we even opened. I have sat with an Ofsted inspector who grilled me on our policies, procedures and curriculum to ensure that we would meet all statutory regulations. Within a few months of opening, we had a ‘monitoring visit’ from the DfE to ensure we were delivering what we promised & have another one next month. And we will be visited by Ofsted for our first full inspection before the end of this school year. We have been checked and monitored and inspected very thoroughly! I welcome this level of monitoring too; we do need to be able to prove ourselves to external experts. But so do all schools. There are bad schools out there. Some will be Free Schools. That is why there is a system of inspections to monitor the quality of education in the country.