Sir Iain Hall, chair of Great Schools for All Children, the trust that runs King’s Leadership Academy, a free school in Warrington, writes:
There are over 250 free schools now open in England with more on the way. After 40 years as a teacher and a headteacher I have seen many changes in schools policy – from the seismic to the soon-forgotten – but the speed with which these new institutions have become a reality has been astonishing. I can already see the huge, positive impact my school has had in less than three years.
For sceptics, the automatic assumption is that fast change must mean a cutting of corners, a lack of oversight and scrutiny. From the front line it is hard to swallow this criticism when the reality is that, in all my years of teaching, I have never been involved in a school that has been so scrutinised.
All of us involved in free schools recognise why that is and, indeed, welcome it. But it is somewhat galling that critics all too readily point the finger and cry foul play and a lack of oversight and accountability.
First and foremost – and it is a fact often overlooked in the free schools debate – creating these new schools has only been possible with support of parents. No free school could exist without parents willing to trust that a new school offers a better chance for their children.
This was particularly important for me because at my own free school in Warrington – King’s Leadership Academy – parents did more than sign up in support. It was their concern that initiated the creation of the new school.
I was approached by a group of Warrington parents who were fed up with having no good options for their children. I had recently seen first hand the impact that charter schools were having on low-income communities in the US, so, having adapted a version of this model for our community with a team of teachers, I presented it to parents who endorsed the vision for our new school so strongly that 500 of them signed their support for it in just seven days.
For free schools, local engagement starts from the very beginning of the application process. To be given a green light from government to open, a group has to show significant parental support for their specific school: what will be taught and how, the shape of the school day, the expectations of, and aspirations for, pupils and so on.
Parents in turn have to show their commitment by stating that the planned school would be the first choice for their child. For parents, this is a significant pledge: they are saying that in principle they would put a school that does not yet exist down as the first choice for their child. Just imagine that huge leap of faith.
As a result – and quite rightly – parents have high expectations and are not shy in demanding that their new school delivers on the promises it makes. In their first years, free schools do not have exam results and so do not appear in the usual league tables to "prove" their success. It is therefore critical that they continually engage with local parents to demonstrate their value.
The result is that free schools develop close relationships with their parents. At King’s Leadership, either myself or a senior member of staff has an individual meeting with every family before the start of their first term and we put a high premium on keeping them informed of progress at every stage. In addition to the usual three parents’ evenings, parents receive five reports per year and our staff are online each evening to help with any homework worries. As so much of our focus is on building character, we make sure parents get a real sense of our high-expectations culture – including being present at our induction ceremony when their child is formally presented with their academy tie.
We are not unusual. Knowing the name of every child is easier when your school starts small but that then becomes an expectation and is built into the DNA of your school – home visits and giving parents advice on supporting learning at home are all features that you come across often at free schools. Many go above and beyond – at La Fontaine, a bilingual school in Bromley, parents get a chance to improve their French with free evening classes; the Heights Primary has an open house for all parents on a Thursday followed by an assembly on a Friday; many free schools – including Hatfield Community Free School and Hope Community School – include parents with family-style dining when teachers, students and parents all sit down to enjoy a meal together.
The result is a stronger relationship between parents and schools that brings benefits both ways. At King’s Leadership, over 20 parents committed to being on the parent-teacher association and they are in the process of raising money for our new school library while at La Fontaine the newly French-speaking parents have helped by building a pirate ship in the playground and a garden allotment for the students.
The demand to meet the high expectations of parents puts an incredible pressure on free schools to succeed and this is on top of the rigorous statutory requirements. Before they open, free schools have to conduct a consultation with the community; full Ofsted inspections are conducted within two years of opening; they are financially accountable to the Education Funding Agency and have to meet the same statutory requirements that face every academy or risk losing their funding.
I can understand a healthy fear of new things, and of course we should ask sensible questions to ensure that these new schools meet the high expectations that are put on them. The fact is that this is exactly what is happening. At King’s Leadership we know we are getting it right. Ofsted’s "Parent View" discovered that 90 per cent of our parents would recommend the school and we in our turn trust them to keep us on track. In fact, they hold the majority vote on our governing body.
As a physicist by training, I am well aware that observation changes what we see. My school has many eyes on it and is the better for it. We are accountable to our parents, Ofsted and the wider community – surely this is exactly as it should be?