Land of the free

5th August 2011 at 01:00
Teachers preparing to open the first free schools in September are full of missionary zeal for their cause - and relish the journey into the unknown

I wouldn't say we are crammed into a small room," says Catherine Bank. She pauses, and then laughs. "I would say it's the best use of the space available. It makes it easier to communicate with each other. It's an adequate space. It's allowing the job to get done. That's the most important thing."

Miss Bank and her colleagues are working out of the corner a Suffolk village hall. They have a large meeting table, and a handful of individual work stations. And from here they intend to plan and develop a school.

Miss Bank is deputy head of Stour Valley Community School, one of about 14 free schools that will open in September. Across the country, several staffrooms' worth of free-school teachers are being appointed into what is, essentially, a vacuum. They are a staff with no staffroom, but also no classrooms, corridors or, indeed, pupils.

"It was a little different, applying to a school that hasn't got any students yet," says Wavell Blades. "But I thought it would be an opportunity for me to try something new." Mr Blades, who until the end of term was teaching history at a comprehensive school in Hounslow, has been appointed head of humanities at West London Free School, a secondary set up by local parents, including author and journalist Toby Young.

Mr Blades, however, had no doubts about applying not only to a new school, but also to an entirely untested type. "I started teaching five years ago, and I'm still teaching at my first school," he says. "I knew I wanted a challenge, something I had not done before.

"Just because someone's background is disadvantaged doesn't mean they are any less able to succeed. That's why I went into teaching. It's why I've stayed in education. For me, the free school embodies those things. The idea was something I could get behind."

Ranjit Singh Dhanda, similarly, was unconcerned by the experimental nature of the first free schools when he agreed to take on the role of principal for Nishkam Education Trust's new primary in Birmingham.

Having worked in education for 23 years, Mr Dhanda was previously a further education tutor before moving into teacher training at South Birmingham College and Wolverhampton University.

He started out merely advising the parents who had set up the Nishkam nursery and supplementary school, and now wanted to establish a primary. But when the group failed to find a suitable candidate for the principal's job, he agreed to put his career on hold and oversee the new school himself.

"We're in an area of Birmingham that is quite deprived," he says. "There are a lot of issues around here. Some of the primary schools are quite low-achieving and children don't get a broad education.

"These parents are not middle-class, they are not professionals. And yet they are so passionate; they have such amazing ideas. They know what they want: what they want is an excellent education. And I want to make sure that happens. It seemed a unique opportunity to be involved in something like this."

Such comments are typical among newly appointed free-school staff. It is not merely the belief in the free-school concept that they repeat, like a creed of faith, but a very specific belief in the founding philosophy behind the schools to which they have each been appointed.

Mr Dhanda, for example, is eager to point out that Nishkam will free up one afternoon every week for extra-curricular activities such as sports, music and optional academic subjects.

"It's like having a very good private school education without having to pay for it," he says. "If it could have been done easily before, it would have been done. It's not easy. It's an enormous challenge. It's like having your neck on the block, in a way. But offering a broader, richer curriculum has always been my dream."

These are words that are repeated constantly by converts to the free- school cause: "challenge"; "dream"; "opportunity"; "private-school" or "grammar school".

"`Challenge' is a word coming up again and again," says Catherine Bank, at Stour Valley. "It will be a challenge to try to look at every child as an individual, give them something that they want to do. But we have people who are up for a challenge."

It is this zeal that has been sustaining free-school teachers in circumstances that, even beyond the adequate confines of Miss Bank's village hall, are somewhat idiosyncratic. Few teachers appointed to free schools have had a conventional interview process: it is difficult, for example, to ask applicants to come into school and teach pupils a sample lesson when there is no school to visit, no pupils to teach.

Mr Blades was invited for a panel interview with the recently appointed headteacher and deputy head, along with Toby Young and other members of the West London steering committee. After this, he was asked to complete a written exercise outlining how he would implement this vision for the faculty, and the resources he would need to do so. He was also asked to observe and pass judgment on a televised lesson.

At Stour Valley, however, things are somewhat different. The free school will replace an existing middle school, although building, staff and most of the pupils will be new. As a result, Miss Bank's interview was "exactly the same as any other school": she was invited to look around the middle school before meeting the head and governing body and teaching a sample lesson.

The presence of an existing body of pupils also means that it is possible for Stour Valley staff to seek adolescent opinion - even if it does not necessarily come from the same group of adolescents who will be affected by any ultimate decisions - on school policy as it develops. And so pupils have been asked for suggestions on issues such as uniform and sanctions. These will then be revisited, after the school has been running for a year.

"If you are setting up any new school, you are setting up your ethos from scratch," says Miss Bank. "It's about working with the ideas of staff and students, once they become a cohesive body. That is true of any number of policies: homework, health and safety, child-protection."

Many members of free-school staff find this ability to develop school fundamentals from scratch a key appeal. "Schools have social norms, people have routines developed," says Damian McBeath, head of the forthcoming Ark Conway Primary in west London. "It's hard to change things halfway through. It's much easier to do that at the beginning: to say, `this is the length of the school day, this is our approach to maths'."

Education charity Ark Schools will open two free schools and two academies in September, all in the process of codifying their ethos, policies and rules. Then there are the aesthetics. "I was a little surprised by how much say I had in what the uniform would look like," Mr McBeath says. "A company came along, and I said, `can we look at a grey or blue jumper in this style?'"

No sooner had he begun settling into his high-fashion role, however, than he was confronted with a reality that professional couturiers rarely have to deal with. "We were quite keen, early on, to look at a tartan checked skirt," he says. "But we were very aware that it had to be affordable, making sure that boys' and girls' uniforms cost the same. So now we have a white shirt and grey trousers, that parents can buy from any supermarket. That way, when we do have a bespoke item, like the tie, it won't cost the earth to have the whole uniform.

"It's a new experience, to think that something I have designed and created is going to be the school uniform. A lot of things I'm putting in place are going to have an impact for so long."

Most significant of these, however, is the appointment of school staff. At Nishkam, for example, Mr Dhanda has been looking for teachers who share his enthusiasm for an extended curriculum.

"I think it would have been impossible to do what we are doing without recruiting afresh," he says. "When you try to change an existing organisation, it really is difficult, especially when staff have been in post a long time and have very set ideas."

Catherine Bank agrees. "Inevitably, what you get in an established school are some people who are moving with trends in education, and changing very rapidly," she says. "And some people who revert to type and resist change. In a new school, you have people who are up for a challenge, who are willing to take on a new ethos."

The catechism of Stour Valley is that it will provide a traditional secondary school curriculum, but with sufficient flexibility to meet the academic needs of each individual child. So if a Year 8 pupil is ready to take maths GCSE, for example, that pupil will be entered for maths GCSE. And, as at Nishkam, extra-curricular activities will be factored into an extended timetable. Trampolining classes, for example, might be offered purely because, Miss Bank suggests, "people want to jump up and down for an hour".

All staff, therefore, will be asked what skills they can lend. "We talked to someone yesterday who was interested in children going fishing," Miss Bank says. "It's not your average curriculum subject. Maybe in a couple of years' time, I'll say, `it hasn't worked'. Or we will have had ideas from support staff, but not from admin staff.

"But the type of people we have applying - no one has said, `we don't want to be part of that'. And there is no history of `10 years ago we tried this and it didn't work', or `my union says we should do it this way'. It's just: `this is the ethos of the school. This is how we are going to do it'."

But it is not merely the staff who most free schools will be recruiting afresh. It is also the entire pupil body. Different free schools are approaching this differently.

Stour Valley, for example, will initially recruit key stage 3 pupils from local primary and middle schools. West London Free School, by contrast, will start with only a single year-group - Year 7 - and gradually expand upwards.

For his first year in the job, therefore, Mr Blades will be teaching only Year 7 pupils. "It's weird," he says. "I wonder what impact it might have on my teaching. I'm very, very used now to teaching lots of exam classes, so this might just help me evaluate how I teach younger children."

He will initially teach RE and geography, alongside history, so does not anticipate days filled with free periods where older pupils should be. "There is teaching, a lot of it," he says. "But also a lot of time to sit back and reflect - to think ahead about Years 8 and 9. It's just a really cool experience to be a part of."

The key word here is "part". Because, while many of the recruitment and decision-making processes facing free schools are common to any other new school, others are not. Where free schools have been set up by parents, those same parents will have a significant role to play in determining what a school will look like, what it will teach, and who its lessons will be taught by.

"Normally the head and governors think they are in control," says Mr Dhanda. "Normally, I would interview someone with the senior management team, make a decision, and that's it. But here, the parents are appointing staff.

"It's a challenge. There have been meetings with parents that go on until late in the evening. There are lots of discussions, lots of opinions. But you can't throw your weight around. You have to persuade people over to your point of view." There is a pause. "Or change your own opinion.

"There is a leap of faith here, but not necessarily a risky one. I need to see myself as a civil servant, someone serving the community. I'm an old hippy, in my way. Power to the people."

Logistics aside, the free-school system is untested and therefore controversial. Blind faith and placard-style slogans are not only inevitable, but actively necessary. "Before I applied, I was worried," says Mr Blades. "There has been a lot of controversy surrounding the school, because it's something that hasn't been done before in this country." But, he says, he entered the profession via Teach First, the fast-track scheme for high-flying graduates.

"When Teach First started, people said it was never going to work. I see similarities between Teach First and free schools. You need to have a bit of support for these experiments, not write them off as something that isn't going to work.

"It's a really great opportunity," he adds, once more the buzz-word- dropping proselyte. "Seeing a school from scratch, getting more experience at senior level. What I'm going to take away from the job will be as beneficial to me as what I bring to it."

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