The free-school pioneers who see only opportunity in our inner cities

16th July 2010 at 01:00
Teachers planning to go it alone are looking to the US's controversial KIPP model. But unions remain strongly opposed to the idea, as William Stewart reports

A group of 35 state deputy and assistant heads are hoping to radically improve results in deprived urban areas by opening new "free schools", in an English version of the US Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP).

They are all graduates of Future Leaders, a publicly funded leadership training scheme, which will give them the kind of backing KIPP has provided to altruistic teachers setting up schools in tough inner-cities across the US.

The prospect of a network of Future Leaders schools will be a boon to ministers keen to counteract the "Toby Young effect" that has seen their controversial free schools policy portrayed as a vehicle for pushy middle-class parents.

But teaching union the NUT says teachers who want to help improve the educational chances of deprived young people would do better working with existing local authority schools.

Heath Monk, Future Leaders chief executive, said: "In the pre-election period a lot of this (free schools) was about middle-class parents saying: 'I can't get my child into a good school so I'll set my own one up.'

"But we see this as an opportunity to establish a movement that could fundamentally change what urban schools do."

So far, the ubiquitous Mr Young, author and journalist, has dominated free schools' media coverage with his plans to offer a grammar school-style education in west London.

Future Leaders participants focus on the toughest areas of the country and follow the philosophy of the highest-performing US charter schools - that all pupils can succeed, regardless of background, so long as teachers take the right approach.

To date, the scheme has been about getting this high-expectations culture into the state system by helping its graduates win leadership positions in existing schools.

But proponents of the idea believe it is easier to achieve in new start-up schools, which is why the Future Leaders scheme is keen to exploit the free schools policy. The scheme will use the experience of its partner, the Ark academy chain, to give its graduates technical advice on setting up a school and is also looking at offering them a special six-month course.

"Most of our Future Leaders have backgrounds in teaching so setting up a company, running a business, isn't what they are naturally going to be good at," said Mr Monk.

He said that others in the group would be interested in offering their leadership services to parents or community groups already planning to set up free schools, so long as the ethos and area matched Future Leaders criteria.

The New Schools Network is helping to put the leaders in touch with suitable groups. Rachel Wolf, director of the network, which was formed to support the free schools policy, said: "What Toby (Young) is doing is great, but most of the people getting in touch with us are less affluent and have less social capital.

"It is fantastic that Future Leaders is getting involved. People like that have been the driving force behind charter schools in the States and it is wonderful they want to do the same in deprived areas here."

John Bangs, head of education at the NUT, said: "There is nothing in the current democratic structure which prevents teachers actually making a difference in a local authority school.

"There they have got the enormous depth of back-up and support from a local authority, but can still maintain a relationship with outside organisations. I can't see any advantage in going it alone."


Sajid Hussain has been waiting his entire 13-year teaching career for the free schools policy to come along.

The Oxford University graduate spent that time working in inner-city schools - in his native Bradford and neighbouring Leeds - and now cannot wait to open his own.

That ambition should be fulfilled by September 2011, when he expects his free school to open its doors.

The 11-18 academy will specialise in science, have a non-selective, non-denominational admissions policy and eventually take around 500 pupils from an area of Bradford he is not yet prepared to name.

Most importantly, it will set out to ensure that every single one of his pupils can go to university, regardless of their background.

The 37-year-old believes engaging with parents will be key to his school's success, both in getting them to send their children there and then helping them to achieve.

"Most inner-city schools are characterised by parents, generally speaking, not coming to parents' evenings," he said.

"Over a number of years parents have disengaged and also come to believe that the schools aren't really prepared to engage with them."

Mr Hussain plans to put this right with parental contracts, home visits and going out and selling his school. He has previous experience in setting up a small independent school and already has major backing for his latest project.

A multi-millionaire philanthropist is apparently willing to act as a safety net and pay for anything the state cannot afford, and Mr Hussain has a team of fellow inner city-raised success stories working with him.

Some are "outstanding teachers" and others are doctors, willing to act as pupil mentors.

Mr Hussain said joining Future Leaders had cemented the beliefs he already had about how a good school ought to be able to transform the fortunes of all inner-city children.

The training scheme, which helped him win his current job as an assistant principal of a Bradford academy, involved a visit to a KIPP school in New York.

And his plan includes essential KIPP ingredients for success, such as extending the school year, high expectations and ensuring basic literacy and numeracy are up to scratch.

He eventually hopes to open a chain of schools but has no illusions about what lies ahead.

"You can have all these fantastic ideas," he said. "But the critical factor for success in these areas is work. Damn hard work."

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