Free schools receive a mixed press, and failures are readily greeted with glee. At its recent party conference, Labour displayed its dislike of free schools, with shadow education secretary Angela Rayner claiming that they “neither improve standards, nor empower staff or parents”.
Before proposing ideological systemic change, however, policymakers should remember that systems and governments don’t make a difference to education in individual communities: on the ground, it’s schools with fantastic, dedicated teachers, supported by visionary governors and appreciative parents. Given those elements, and a degree of individual freedom, schools can concentrate on their core purpose and principles.
Politicians should avoid generalising from single examples, so I must, too. But I want to write about a free school I know well, having had a hand in its creation. At the heart of a deprived community, it’s doing precisely what Angela Rayner claims it cannot – improving standards and empowering both staff and parents.
West Newcastle Academy opened its doors to its first cohort of early years pupils in September 2014, housed in a group of temporary buildings in a nature park. Four years on, it occupies a bespoke building high above the River Tyne in Benwell, one of Newcastle’s poorest areas. It affords views stretching 20 miles to the south: more importantly, it serves as a beacon of excellence and aspiration in a community that has too often lacked opportunity for either.
You feel something special as soon as you walk in. You don’t have to be a visitor (as I was this week) to be greeted by founder headteacher Susan Percy: every child enjoys the same warmth. The fact that pupils feel valued is demonstrated by their obvious confidence. Classrooms are calm, but not because silence is imposed. Indeed, children are anxious to answer questions and propose solutions to problems: but the level of their engagement in their learning is striking, with the air of concentration aided by teachers’ quiet recognition of pupils’ level of focus and effort.
Free schools for the community
This unflaggingly happy, relaxed atmosphere of a school at peace with itself stems from a steely focus on the needs of every individual child, underpinned by research and experience. The school draws heavily on the Reggio Emilia and Danish approaches to children-centred learning. In addition, it’s committed to outdoor learning: every year-group, rain or shine, spends one or two whole days every week out of doors. Exploring learning in small groups and in many different contexts – the city, forest, beach, the adjoining nature park, school or home – affords children multiple opportunities to learn in ways that best match their interests. Their confidence grows exponentially.
The sense of community is palpable. Lunchtime is a delight: half a dozen children and a member of staff sit around a table: the food (a delicious-looking curry, the day I was there) arrives in dishes and is served out. Extra helpings are shared out till it’s all gone: all plates are empty. Surely, though, some children are fussy and don’t want that one choice on offer? Not so, it appears: they love the food.
The school is full, with 164 on roll. Some 15 pupils are flexi-schooling, learning at home on one or more days in the week. The head is happy to facilitate these arrangements, noting that these children are making particularly strong progress. Progress is a major focus for all staff. In a seriously deprived area, many children start in school a long way back: WNA finds time and again that, in a year or two, they have caught up compared with their cohort.
WNA was set up by a local charity which, working with alienated families, decided to establish a long-term legacy by using the then recently-enacted legislation to create a free school. It sought allies: I was targeted, as head of a local independent school with a strong academic reputation. Above all, the founding group won the support of parents, who needed school places in that area and valued the exceptionally nurturing ethos offered. Their current anxiety centres on where their children might find secondary schooling to equal what they’re receiving now.
Could this unique school have created or maintained its distinctive character if it were not a free school? Perhaps. But Angela Rayner should pause and consider: the country needs more schools like West Newcastle Academy, not fewer.
Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationist and musician. He is a former independent school headteacher and a past chair of HMC. He Tweets at @bernardtrafford