This week marks a significant milestone for the free schools policy: on Monday, the application window for the current wave of applications came to a close. We now know that 124 groups sent in a submission, with a rich spread of prospective schools across the country with everything from schools led by those in the creative industries through to those who ardently campaign for knowledge-based education.
Putting together a free school application is no easy task – as I well know – and all this work is done with no guarantee of success. The prize, however, is significant, as the impact of these new schools is already showing. It is also why more groups wanting to change education for the better should keep coming forward.
The free schools policy has faced criticism in the past, accused of being reduced to a means for generic academy trusts to open up identikit schools. But a closer look at some of the groups that New Schools Network (NSN) has worked with over the past few months shows the policy still encompasses a broad church of options.
One exciting development shows the wider range of post-16 options expanding outside London. BOA Stage and Screen Production, building off the successful Birmingham Ormiston Academy, will offer a highly specialised education in the technical, production and administration side of the performing arts. This will cover film, television and the theatre, and students will have the opportunity to experience project-based learning while working with a range of highly-regarded creative partners.
Similarly, the Northern Academy of Music and Arts (NAMA) will provide a specialist creative education in the North West. Based in Greater Manchester, NAMA will offer artistic students the opportunity to work in partnership with the creative industry, experiencing a great education while developing the technical skills necessary to succeed here.
Meanwhile, Michaela Community School will be replicating its high expectations mindset in Stevenage, offering a traditional knowledge-based education to students there in an effort to make a greater difference in driving school improvement.
And of course, academy trusts aren’t the only groups coming forward. It’s good to see that there’s still the opportunity for new providers to enter the landscape, with The New School for North Hampshire being submitted by a group of teachers, academics, parents and community leaders, all coordinated by the MP Ranil Jayawardena.
Free schools saw great success over the summer, as has been covered elsewhere, and we know they’re highly regarded by Ofsted. Importantly, they are more popular with parents and students than other school types.
This is why it makes such sense for the recent wave to have invited groups to focus on specific geographies. In previous years the policy has been spread out across the country, meaning that any group could put forward an application provided they adequately prove the need for the school. However, that is no longer the case.
Wave 13 applications were explicitly targeted at areas that need intervention, meaning resources are put into the communities that most need them. The criteria for this wave, therefore, identified those areas that were struggling educationally as best suited for free school applications.
On top of this, those applying have to demonstrate clear evidence that there would be sufficient pupils for the school, and that it would not have a negative effect on the existing provision. This is how the programme can have an impact beyond its own schools, bringing an educational stimulus into areas that have been left stagnant for too long. Those groups that have just submitted their applications will have to prove this, and then defend their reasoning at an interview, before being approved to open up a new school.
More and more, these applications show groups moving into new areas. Over half of the groups NSN worked with for this application window were not currently running a free school in that community but were moving further afield in an effort to spread their expertise. This applies to multi-academy trusts as well as parent groups, charities and existing schools. What’s more, they are working to set up new schools in areas that haven’t been touched by the programme to date, and in areas outside of London.
It is fair to say that not every free school has been a success. The programme has run into obstacles along the way, but lessons have been learned every time. Even those schools which did struggle at first are being turned around, whether by themselves or with help from a wider chain. I have seen this first-hand with Dixons Kings Academy, which had a troubled start to life as the Kings Science Academy, but thanks to the hard work of the staff and student body, it is now in the top 40 schools in the country.
Meanwhile, NSN is doing more to make sure every free school hits the ground running. NSN has always offered support to schools going through the pre-opening period, but last year formalised this into a range of services to best meet schools’ needs. This means that whether groups need a bit of extra support navigating the process of securing an appropriate site, help organising and prioritising other work streams, or a full project management service, NSN is there for them.
There is still a need for a programme which offers the chance to set up schools that cover a wide range of pedagogies and philosophies. The schools who submitted on Monday will play a vital role in driving up standards, creating new places where they’re desperately needed, and showing off this range. The drive for innovation was always a central motivator for the free school programme, and will continue to be crucial over the coming years.
Nick Weller is an NSN trustee and CEO of Dixons Academies Charitable Trust.