How will free schools fare under the new Ofsted framework?

If the inspectorate truly doesn't impose a one-size-fits-all curriculum, free schools will be able to improve lives through innovation, writes Unity Howard

Free schools, Ofsted, Ofsted's new framework, Free School Network

Curriculum diversity and school-led innovation are an essential part of improving educational standards and the life chances of children in England, which is why all of us at the New Schools Network (NSN) welcome the changes to the Ofsted framework.

In particular, it is encouraging that the inspection process will spend less time focusing on internal data and will instead look at the real substance of "what is being taught". Ofsted is giving a clear statement of intent: teachers and school leaders have the power and freedom to implement an educational offer that they know works for their pupils.

This was exactly the motivating principle behind free schools. The free school's policy was established to empower communities to challenge the status quo by giving new schools the freedom to innovate their educational offer. This has given free schools the choice to construct and implement what they believe meets the needs of their community. And indeed, this has been integral to the success of free schools, which as we now know, are outperforming all other types of state schools at key stage 1, 4 and 5. Free schools are also more likely to be rated outstanding than any other type of school.

In preparation for our response to Ofsted’s consultation, we gathered the views of all phases and all types of open free schools, as well as those that have been approved to open. The message we heard was loud and clear: free schools often feel discouraged from innovating before their first inspection out of fear of failing at the first Ofsted hurdle.

Ninety per cent of open free schools broadly welcomed the changes and we believe the new framework should act as a powerful reassurance for schools to implement a rich and broad curriculum from day one.

Architects of their own success

Free schools, such as School 21 in Stratford, are leading the way on bringing new perspectives to learning. The founders wanted to create an approach that focused on preparing its pupils for life after school. School 21 focuses on projects in which pupils work together, using a range of skills to develop effective solutions for real-world problems. So, for example, when the school was still on its temporary site, pupils rolled their sleeves up and designed a classroom for their new building. They developed ideas about effective learning spaces, and even presented their ideas to the school’s architects.

Marine Academy in Plymouth is also a phenomenal example of how free schools innovate to reflect the needs of their community. Its curriculum is based around marine themes that relate to Plymouth’s history, and its future, where maritime industries will play a crucial part in its prosperity. It is rated outstanding by Ofsted, and its progress scores are well above national and local authority averages.

This success is not just limited to mainstream schools. Alternative-provision free schools, such as the Boxing Academy in Hackney, use sport to empower their students to manage their anger, give them confidence in their learning and direct them towards further education or employment.

These free schools demonstrate how diverse, innovative curricula are transforming the educational landscape across England. A broad and rich curriculum will have life-changing results for the pupils that attend these schools.

Our hope is that the new framework will reward schools that are ambitious and focus on the substance of learning. Ofsted must now hold true to its commitment not to impose a one-size-fits-all curriculum. Innovation and diversity are vitally important for driving improvement in the sector. At NSN, we will continue to support new free schools that have the vision and drive to do something different and improve the life chances of children in their local community.

Unity Howard is deputy director of the New Schools Network

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