'I prefer to say it's a grammar school for all'

11th March 2011 at 00:00
Head who traded independent sector for Toby Young's free school - the first in Michael Gove's vanguard - reveals his vision

On first impressions, the headteacher of the country's first free school looks more likely to be involved in banking than education.

Sporting a pinstripe suit and a red-and-white shirt complete with white collar and matching cuffs, Thomas Packer could easily be imagined sipping champagne and smoking a cigar in one of the City's top restaurants. He even carries a fob watch in his top pocket.

But in reality, the 51-year-old has dedicated his life to a far worthier cause. After studying maths and physics at Durham University, Mr Packer went straight into a life of teaching in the independent sector, which has taken him up and down the country, from Hereford Cathedral School via Jersey to Teesside High, a rural private school where he is currently headmaster.

His next step, however, is one that none of his years in education will have prepared him for. Taking on the headship of the West London Free School - more commonly known as the Toby Young Free School, after the journalist and author who has led the project - Mr Packer has been thrust not only into the full glare of the media, but also into the centre of a political battleground.

As head of the first free school, Mr Packer is now the flag-bearer for education secretary Michael Gove's controversial school reform programme - and it is a role he takes in his stride.

"Yes, there are cynics," he says with some understatement. "In my view, the scourge of modern society is cynicism because it is negative and it is all-pervasive. If we had been cynical, we would never have rescued those Chilean miners. It was only hope and love that kept those guys going.

"There will be a lot of scrutiny on us. That means we really need to get our act together. We have to be canny about what we're providing and be proud of what we're providing. And hopefully we can pull it off," he adds.

Whether or not the school succeeds depends on the level of parental support it attracts. And the early signs indicate that it has it by the bucket-load.

"It has been wonderful - 450 applicants for places this year," he says. "There is a building that we have identified but we haven't got planning consent for, there are no teachers, there are no books, but 450 families took that leap of faith, which is extraordinary."

Critics of the free school movement often point to supporters' demographic. As much as Mr Gove heaps scorn on the idea that working-class parents would not mobilise themselves to start their own school, it is telling that the first to be approved is led by the distinctly middle-class Mr Young.

With a motto - "Sapere Aude", or "Dare to think" - taken from Roman poet Horace, and a curriculum that focuses on the classics, it is not hard to speculate on what type of parent might be attracted to the school. But Mr Packer believes its approach will challenge children from all social backgrounds.

"When they come up from primary school (where) they do English, history or maths, and a lot of them will say, 'I've done that in my last school'. And they have and they haven't," Mr Packer says. "Latin is a subject that none of them will have done: a new subject that is completely fresh and that does wonders.

"Partly because they learn the structure of language, it helps them with their English, with their foreign languages, and it also helps with maths because there is logic there. And there is also the aesthetic side - some simple Latin poetry is worth listening to, reading and writing in its own right. You don't have to be a brilliant linguist to get something out of it."

Mr Young has in the past described the school as a "comprehensive grammar", meaning it will have a comprehensive intake but with a grammar school-style ethos.

Mr Packer sees things slightly differently. "Comprehensive means different things to different people," he says. "The vision that politicians held in the 1970s - I'm not sure it is the same now. I would prefer to say it's a grammar school for all.

"If you feel your child should be part of our academic journey you are welcome. If you don't feel your child would be part of our academic journey then that's fine, but the opportunity's there. That's what choice is all about. The right place for your child."

At the heart of this "grammar school for all" will be a strong sense of discipline - something that will strike a chord with members of the Conservative party. It means a strict uniform policy, standing up in class when a teacher enters the room, and a clear reward system.

"Discipline will be very, very important," Mr Packer says. "It's important that children know where the boundaries are and that we stick to them. As soon as you start making exceptions, you've lost the plot.

"The advantage we have is that, because they will be coming in at 11, we can get that right from day one and you can create a culture that says we respect each other, we respect each other's values. We know what is and isn't acceptable."

The fact that the school will admit one year at a time gives it a better chance than most of ensuring that pupils adhere to its ethos. But dealing with children from the vast array of backgrounds found in west London might prove a steep learning curve for a head who has spent almost his entire career in the independent sector.

"In a sense, we're an independent school in the state system. The only difference is we can't charge what we want. But the nature of the child will be very different," he admits.

"There will be a lot of middle-class parents who buy in to the Latin and want the discipline; that's inevitable. But also we will have lots of different ethnic and socio-economic groups, so it really will be a hybrid. But I have a good deputy who is himself (currently) a teacher in an inner-city school in London."

And he adds: "I have the side that has dealt more with the business end of a school and independence, legal compliance, building projects, that sort of thing. Obviously my deputy has more hands-on experience dealing with the type of child that we may well end up with."

The school is still working through its applicants, and it is clear that, with nearly four children applying for each of the 120 places on offer, it is attracting substantial interest from across the community.

Yet if the school does end up predominantly middle class, then the first of Mr Gove's free schools can only be viewed as a failure.

The policy has been sold to the public as an opportunity for parents of all social groups dissatisfied with their local schools to set up one of their own.

It is one thing for Mr Packer to dress like a City financier - now he has to make sure it is not just bankers' kids who come through the gates.


Born: 1959


1977-81: Physics and maths, University College Durham


1981-88: Housemaster, Hereford Cathedral School,Herefordshire

1988-96: Head of science, Downe House School, Berkshire

1997-2003: Deputy head, Victoria College, Jersey

2003-06: Deputy head, Stover School, Devon

2006-11: Headmaster, Teesside High School, Stockton-on-Tees

ADMISSIONS - Young's children could miss out

Author and journalist Toby Young has succeeded in his aim to set up a secondary school in west London - but it could all be for nothing as far as his own children are concerned.

"At present they would have to enter the lottery for applications who live in a three-mile radius (of the school)," Mr Young told The TES. "They will have the same chance as everyone else. But I do have four children, and there is a sibling policy. If one gets in, there is a chance all will have an opportunity to go there."

Mr Young adds that he has heard rumours of changes to the admissions system for free schools.

"There's a slim chance that the Department (for Education) may change the admissions code to make it possible for parents who set up free schools to get their kids in. Unless they do that, it is hard to see why people would go through this arduous process," he said.

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