The same but different

17th December 2010 at 00:00
Dismissed by opponents as middle-class do-gooders, those behind the first tranche of free schools in fact come in all shapes and sizes. But, as Meabh Ritchie reports, what unites them is a refusal to stand on the educational sidelines.


The founding committee members of Bedford and Kempston Free School are feeling very positive. They have just decided on their school motto: Go the extra mile. "When we came up with that, it just resonated with everyone in the room," says committee member Mark Lehain. The motto will also apply to teachers. "If you're a member of staff and there is a kid who is struggling, don't give up on them. Go the extra mile," Mr Lehain says. "If you're a kid and stuck on your homework, don't give up - get on the phone and call your teacher."

Mr Lehain, a former deputy headteacher at Wootton Upper School in Bedfordshire, flags up another landmark decision: staff will be on call for their pupils and will give out mobile numbers to their class. As a self-confessed "political geek", Mr Lehain, who resigned from his deputy head post to concentrate on the founding of the school, is a supporter of KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) schools in the US, where teachers are on call for pupils out of school hours. He has used KIPP as the model for Bedford and Kempston, where he hopes to be headteacher if the school gets the go-ahead and opens in September as planned.

In keeping with KIPP's aim of maximising the amount of time children spend in school, pupils will have a longer school day to accommodate compulsory extra-curricular activities, including cooking, music, and possibly sport.

The group behind Bedford and Kempston is mainly made up of teachers and former teachers who have become increasingly frustrated with the existing school system.

Tom Barwood, a former teacher and now an educational consultant, jumped at the opportunity to be involved in the project. "How many more school- improvement teams do you need?" Mr Barwood asks. "I've seen it all. Every single Government initiative - I could reel them all off. And they haven't made that much difference."

He is not alone. Becky Jenkins*, a science teacher, hopes to be on the leadership team at the new school. "The motivation for me is to do something that I believe in and something that can really make a difference," Ms Jenkins says.

She believes the existing system tests pupils too much and too often, leaving no room for scientific discovery. While Bedford and Kempston will not stray too far from the national curriculum, Ms Jenkins wants to bring in more project-based learning, focusing on scientific investigations rather than results, and exposing more pupils to careers in science.

Although critics may wonder why these teachers have not focused their energies on making changes in their own schools, Mr Lehain says it is not always possible. "It is so hard as an individual to turn a school around," he says. "Sometimes there is a lot to be said for starting with a clean sheet of paper. We had to have the freedom of a fresh start."

Even on a national level, the existing system has some problems, he adds. Almost half of GCSE pupils in state schools do not get five A*-Cs including English and maths. "Show me a private company that is happy when half of their product fails?" he asks.

Following the KIPP philosophy means asking a lot from teachers. The extended days and 24-hour access is undoubtedly advantageous to children, but teaching unions are likely to have something to say about the job infringing on the personal lives of staff.

But Mr Lehain and the group behind Bedford and Kempston believe that they are only asking what teachers are, in essence, obliged to do in any other school on a daily basis.

"If you're really into your job, there's no way you can get it done between 9am and 3pm," says Mr Barwood. "What's worse is if you get asked to do things by subterfuge. You suddenly find out that you are head of year with extra responsibilities, and you are supposed to be pleased because you get half a responsibility point (on the salary scale) or something. At least this way, teachers sign up to it."

However, despite the additional contracted hours, there will not be any significant financial incentive offered to teachers at the free school.

Teaching unions have expressed the concern that schools without close ties to local authorities, such as the existing academies, will find their senior management teams having to shoulder more responsibility. But Mr Lehain believes that this is actually an advantage that will help the school to be more successful in the long run.

"If I'm not up to scratch, I'm going to be fired," he points out. "When was the last time that a local authority officer got sacked for managing a group of failing schools?"

The reason that private schools tend to be successful is because "parents get stroppy" he claims, adding, "I don't mean that negatively, I think it's a powerful motivator."

The group ultimately wants families in the area, including their own, to have greater choice. The free school will be set up in Kempston, a town near Bedford where many of the local schools have moved from a three- to a two-tier system. A consequence of this has been the creation of significantly larger secondaries.

Mr Lehain's wife Janet, also a former teacher, has been holding house meetings in the area to gauge local interest. "People are not satisfied with the current situation - Kempston needs choice and an injection of higher standards," she says. "There is a need for something new and different from what's on offer."

Far from creating a middle-class enclave, the Lehains and the rest of the founding committee believe their school will give disadvantaged families more options for a better education. "Those parents are just as passionate and concerned and interested in their children's education as the parents who send their children to the private schools," says Mr Lehain.

"But there's one big difference: they tell us they've never been asked or consulted about what they want for their children."

For Mrs Lehain, the free school will allow her to pass on the benefits that she feels she got from her own state education. "I was the first in my family to go to university, and that was because at my school there were high expectations: it was a question of where, not if we were going to university," she says. "The prospect of working with children with that kind of approach is very exciting."

*Name has been changed


The popularity and success of charter schools in the US and free schools in Sweden have inspired the free schools movement in England. The schools can be set up by parents, charities, teachers or independent organisations on a range of sites. Similar to the existing academies in England, free schools will have a large amount of independence while still being funded by the state. Opening hours, holidays and teacher contracts, for example, can all be decided by the school. A total of 16 groups were provisionally approved to set up free schools in the summer. They submitted their business cases last month. Education secretary Michael Gove is expected to announce his final decision on whether they can go ahead next month.


Adam Dawson is already used to defending his school, even though it is yet to open its doors. During the past few months, he has faced criticism from teachers, unions and politicians who claim that his school will be socially divisive. His teachers, they say, will not be entitled to the same rights as those working in local authority-controlled schools.

But Mr Dawson, chairman of the founding committee of the Mill Hill Jewish Primary School, a proposed free school in north London, has little sympathy for detractors.

"I think they should wake up and talk to us about it," says the 32-year- old barrister. "The conversation needs to be: `how do we make this work?' I didn't make this policy. I think the teaching unions are angry with the Government. I'm not taking a political line."

Mr Dawson believes that the Start Your Own School documentary by writer and broadcaster Toby Young, who has helped to lead the free schools movement in England, has influenced public perception of the policy as being driven by pushy parents. "I cringed watching that," says Mr Dawson, "seeing them all sit around drinking red wine at their meetings."

But it did create a huge amount of interest in the public, not least from the media. In the wake of announcing the plan to open Mill Hill, Mr Dawson was called by dozens of reporters asking what bizarre ideas he was hoping to implement.

In fact, Mill Hill will be sticking to the national curriculum and modelling itself on Jewish faith schools, he insists. It will offer pupils a modern Jewish education, "not some black-hatted 16th-century right-wing orthodox idea," says Mr Dawson. "Our pupils will leave with a strong sense of Jewish and British identity."

The idea for the establishment of a Jewish free school came about earlier this year. Mr Dawson and his wife, concerned about where their young children would go to school, set up a Facebook group to gauge public interest in finding a solution to the lack of Jewish primary places in their local borough of Barnet. The borough is expected to have a surplus of 300 pupils next September; 60 of those are from a Jewish background. A number of parents have said they would attend a Jewish school if places were available.

The business case for the school is fairly solid, says Mr Dawson. Mill Hill hopes to start off by providing places for 30 pupils next year. Mr Dawson emphasises that establishing the free school is not a reflection on any perceived faults among local school provision. "We're saying the opposite to Toby Young," he insists. "We're saying that what's out there at the moment is very good. We want to replicate it because we need more places."

About a quarter of pupils' time will be spent on Jewish studies, he predicts. The school day will most likely stretch to four o'clock to fit this in with other classes. Yvonne Baron, deputy headteacher at Hertsmere Jewish Primary in Hertfordshire and a member of Mill Hill's six-strong founding committee, is writing the curriculum.

"We want children to come out of the school being able to read Hebrew fluently, to know their prayers, and when it comes to festivals, we would want them to have an understanding of what they are celebrating," Mrs Baron explains.

Elements of Judaism will be woven into literacy or numeracy, where relevant, and Jewish studies teachers will work closely with class teachers, she adds. For example, a Seal (social and emotional aspects of learning) topic might incorporate a Jewish story to illustrate a particular moral, while a literacy component might involve getting pupils to write a poem about a festival.

But all these well-made plans have met a stumbling block. Shortly after all free schools groups had sent off their applications to the Department for Education, education secretary Michael Gove announced that the faith schools among them would have to admit half their pupils on non-faith grounds. This is in contrast to the 7,000 existing faith schools in the UK, which are allowed to give priority to pupils of a particular faith.

The founders of Mill Hill are in the process of working through these practicalities. At the moment, they understand Mr Gove's pronouncement to mean that one half of the pupils may be Jewish, but primarily, they must meet other criteria for admission.

Mr Dawson admits it would be difficult to incorporate elements of Judaism into the curriculum if not all children are familiar with them. But their small intake means they could still end up with a 100 per cent Jewish school even if half the pupils are chosen for other reasons, he says. The founding committee is still in talks with the Government on the matter and Mr Dawson insists that these talks are amicable.

One area of the coalition government's policy that does chime with the members of the founding committee is the notion of a "big society". It was the prospect of solving a problem that motivated Mr Dawson, Mrs Baron, their partners and another local couple to propose opening the free school. "You can throw your toys out of the pram and say life is not fair, or you can step up and do something," says Mr Dawson. "I'm a doer not a talker and, therefore, once we saw a problem was there, we decided to do something."

The founding committee members are also keen for Mill Hill's curriculum to include an active citizenship programme, he says, adding: "I'm very conscious that we will face attacks from the anti-free schools movement, from the anti-faith schools movement and from within the Jewish community."


Support for free schools has faced opposition from across the education community.

Seven out of 10 state schoolteachers and half of private schoolteachers would be unhappy about working in a free school, according to a recent survey of about 2,000 teachers by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL).

ATL general secretary Mary Bousted says many teachers have concerns about free schools. "Staff in state and private schools are, rightly, totally unconvinced that academies or free schools will improve education, and they are tired of change for the sake of change in education," she says.

Meanwhile, shadow schools minister Vernon Coaker has dismissed Michael Gove's promise to site free schools on unused government properties as "another ill-thought-out gimmick".

There are also concerns about the potential for social selection. "Schools are in competition with one another," explains Anne West, director of the Education Research Group at the London School of Economics, "and because of this competitive environment, they don't want to take on kids that are harder to teach."


The Rivendale Free School in west London has set its sights on being the John Lewis of the free schools movement. Founded on the same co-operative principles, whereby staff own the company and have a say in its strategy, teachers and parents at Rivendale will be able to determine the direction of the school.

The idea is that teachers will be able to make the same sorts of demands from parents as many parents are now making from teachers. "For example, that children get enough sleep or that they show up on time," says Rivendale founder James Woods. "We expect it to be a mutually demanding relationship between the parents and the teachers."

The idea for a primary school in Shepherd's Bush came from Mr Woods, a local entrepreneur. Six years ago, he set up a company called Schools Plus that rented out school facilities to community groups. When the free schools policy was first mooted, Mr Woods saw a gap in the market. Primary schools in the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham are heavily oversubscribed and Mr Woods quickly gained the support of local parents.

Mr Woods sees the school operating along business lines, and says the role of the headteacher will be essential to its success. "The control has to sit with the leadership of the school, but in a structure where the success and accountability of the school depends on the staff," he explains. "The parents are the customers if you like."

The local authority has been supportive of plans for the school, he adds, because it could help ease the shortage of primary places. If Rivendale goes ahead, it will open in September in a disused medical centre in Shepherd's Bush and offer 60 places for a two-form entry. If all goes well, it will eventually cater for 210 pupils aged five to 11.

Rachel Khan, a parent representative on the Rivendale group, says she first became aware of the lack of schooling opportunities when thinking of options for her two-year-old. "There are a lot of Catholic schools around, but we are a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural area," she says. "My husband is Pakistani, so our child won't be able to go there."

The group is determined that the school will be completely independent of religious affiliation, while being respectful of all religions. The hope is that Rivendale will reflect the diverse community it serves.

"There are local parents who are very comfortable in their religious beliefs at home but who don't want to send their child to a faith school of another religion," says Mr Woods. "Our solution to that is that everyone is welcome."

It is not just pupils of different faiths that the governors want to attract, but pupils from different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. Pupils will be enrolled according to the same criteria used by local authority-controlled schools: priority will be given to children from care homes, children with special needs, children with siblings already at the school and children living nearby.

The group has held open evenings in the borough, including White City Estate, and have the support of 70 parents - with 100 children between them. "From people with double-barrelled names, to ethnic minorities from all over - it is a huge mix," says Mrs Khan.

Mr Woods sought the advice of Dick Ewen, the former head of Islington Arts and Media School, when setting up the school's business plan. "What James says, he does," says Mr Ewen. "I know if he said he was going to do something, he would give it a good go."

Mr Ewen heads the board of trustees, which includes Charlotte Cool, head of public affairs at John Lewis, and Monica Zeeman, the former principal of a nursery school in Zurich.

After 22 years as a headteacher, Mr Ewen is fully aware of teacher's concerns about free schools. "Teachers are opposed to it because it has been politicised," he says. "I've listened to teachers talk and they're very critical of it. They say: `I'm going to be paid as a teacher, I work really hard at that, and now you want me to manage it as well'."

The group is also aware of claims that free schools are exclusive: run by the middle class, for the middle class. "It is quite clearly a risk of the free schools policy," admits Mr Woods, while Mr Ewen believes it is an "almost inevitable part of the policy".

Despite this, both remain "apolitical" and say they are determined to make Rivendale work without being exclusive. "We're looking to be responsive to the needs of the community," Mr Ewen insists. "Parents can make it exclusive. If you can make it inclusive, that would be great."

The Rivendale group may not have any pupils, teachers or a headteacher at the moment, but it is already discussing the possibility of establishing a chain of Rivendale schools around the UK. "It's about looking at a different model of organising a school," says Mr Ewen. "It is not changing what goes on in the classroom, but looking at a model, which is cost- effective, flexible, sustainable and replicable."

  • Original headline: `I'm a doer, not a talker'

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today