As one of the few high-profile private schools to sign up to the free school programme, Moorlands School should be a feather in the government's cap. But its headteacher has left for a rival after complaints from parents that the old preparatory school's character has been lost.
Andrew Cook led Moorlands School in Luton for 20 years before it became a flagship free school last September as part of the Barnfield Federation, which also includes an FE college, two academies and a studio school.
But Dr Cook has now walked away from the renamed Barnfield Moorlands Free School to run a new private prep school nearby. It is understood that he is unhappy with the influence of the Barnfield Federation, and parents have also expressed concern about the more diverse intake of pupils now that fees have been scrapped.
Dr Cook will become head of the new King's House Preparatory School and Nursery in September. It will be run by the educational charity that ran Moorlands and will be developed out of an existing private nursery that used to be part of the school.
"When we first announced Moorlands was becoming a free school, we had parents coming into the school giving teachers bunches of flowers," Dr Cook told TES. "But then they were coming to us saying, 'It's not quite what we expected'."
He said that parents had been especially upset by workmen coming in to take down the old school signs in January. "People want a new school that preserves all the traditions they originally went to Moorlands for," he said.
One parent, who intends to move her daughter from the free school to the new prep, said: "They have opened up the school now to all and sundry, which is fine, but there are now some behavioural issues and my children were picking up swear words. I also didn't feel that my child's teacher had as much time for her as there are so many more children."
When Moorlands School - previously listed as one of The Sunday Times's top 100 prep schools in the country - first applied for free school status, Dr Cook said the school would only be an associate member of the Barnfield Federation and would retain its independence. He said he made the "unplanned" decision to leave the school last August, but stayed on until April this year when a new head was appointed.
The news comes after a survey by the Independent Schools Association - reported by TES last week - found there was very little appetite among smaller private schools for free school status. Heads expressed concerns about the potential loss of independence that taking state funding would create.
"When an independent school converts to a free school, parents pick up the idea that they are getting an independent education for free," said Neil Roskilly, director of the ISA. "But the exceptional level of pastoral care and small classes are bound to suffer when a school becomes state-funded. It is not the fault of the teachers, but the economics are very different and the resources are not there to fund that."
Batley Grammar School in West Yorkshire, the first from the elite group of Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference independents to become a free school, has become hugely oversubscribed since it converted. Larger private schools have announced that they are hoping to go state-funded in September 2013, including Bradford Girls' Grammar School and Liverpool College.
Dr Cook's new school, which has been running with a reception class since September 2011, will take Year 1 pupils from September. By 2016, it will operate classes for children aged 2-11 in class sizes of 16 pupils.
A spokeswoman for Barnfield Federation said that before becoming a free school, Moorlands was "lacking investment", but has since spent about #163;500,000 on IT equipment and resources.
"Before Moorlands joined the federation as a free school, only the privileged few pupils from outside the area could afford the fees to attend. Moorlands now has a waiting list for places across all year groups and overall performance on previous years is showing an upward trend. The traditional ethos and small class sizes of 18 remain, as does the excellent standard of discipline and behaviour."
The Barnfield Federation in Luton comprises Barnfield College, Barnfield Moorlands Free School, Barnfield South and West Academies and a vocational "studio school".
It was praised by education secretary Michael Gove in November, when he endorsed the federation's plans to run its own string of independent schools. Chief executive Peter Birkett was knighted in the Queen's Birthday Honours.
But in June, inspectors downgraded Barnfield College from "outstanding" to "satisfactory". Inspectors said the college's judgement of its own performance was "overgenerous."