In January 2012, I was 37. I had just started my dream job. Deputy headteacher at a large 11-18 school in Cardiff. It was a seven-minute drive from my house, my wife’s job was a five-minute drive from our house, and my son could walk to school in less than 10 minutes. We belonged to a really large church where we were actively involved, had a great social life and family all around us. As near to perfect as you can get.
And yet, eight months later, I decided to apply for a headship at a school that had no site, no pupils, no staff, no exam results, nothing in the trophy cabinet and was 150 miles from my homeland. Why?
Because the opportunity to build a school from scratch, the vision set out for that school and the ideology of the free school movement was so alluring. It was an opportunity to make a difference, challenge society, transform young people’s lives; to shake up the established order. I came to London to show what a free school could do when it properly embraces its freedom: I set up Fulham Boys School (FBS).
I believe the first four years of FBS have done just that. We have used our freedom to develop our own distinctive ethos. We’re showing what a school looks like when it is built upon the Christian faith and is free to expose boys to the claims of Jesus Christ and the Bible; to encourage pupils to question big, counter-cultural issues. We’ve used our freedom to really gear our school towards boys, showing what success looks like in sport, in singing, acting, dancing, performing, art and debating. We have designed an aspirational, boy-friendly curriculum, commented on so favourably by Ofsted. We’ve developed a culture where boys "live and breathe good manners and courtesy". We’ve embedded an ethos where students are remarked on as being "happy, safe and well".
We’ve also used our freedoms to create a truly comprehensive school. I will never accept that the brightest minds, sharpest intellects, greatest leaders, statesmen, orators and captains of industry in this country just happen to all be from the upper classes. About 15 per cent of our boys come from private school backgrounds, and they’re rubbing shoulders with some 40 per cent of our boys who qualify for pupil premium. They’re all learning invaluable lessons from each other’s perspectives, learning there are views beyond an echo chamber of "group think". No boy is allowed to use his upbringing or background as an excuse for not meeting our high standards, or as a barrier to achievement.
In keeping with the ideals of the free school movement, we have also set out new notions of enterprise. Enterprise is in the very DNA of FBS; it has had to be. If it wasn’t, none of the above would ever have seen the light of day. The founders would never have pushed to have their vision for the school accepted. The first parents, boys, staff and governors wouldn’t have successfully challenged the Department for Education’s decision to stop us opening in 2014 due to the site. Our site has threatened to be an obstacle to our progress ever since, with the timescales for moving to our permanent home shifting frustratingly, erratically and seismically. We haven’t let this get in the way of achieving our ambitions. We have ensured that we have all the facilities we need to deliver our curriculum, co-curriculum, sports programme, music and drama, whole-school assemblies and dining. Visitors comment on it being the best temporary site they’ve seen.
Free schools: Where is the innovation?
Our staff have been amazing. In four years, only five teachers have left FBS. All for promotion or because they have moved out of London. In the same period, other new schools have had 100 per cent staff turnover. What is true of the teachers is true of our parents. This spirit and attitude got us open and is the reason why we have achieved what we have. No wonder Ofsted described our ethos as "incredible".
So why this blog? What’s my point? Well, two points really.
Firstly, the free school movement which has enabled us to do all this seems to have lost – or is losing – its way. New research published by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) and the Sutton Trust shows that free schools are failing to fulfil the programme’s original purpose.
Sir Peter Lampl, founder of the Sutton Trust, said: “Free schools were supposed to bring new and innovative providers into the education sector, to drive up standards and improve school choice. But as our research shows, very few are fulfilling that original purpose.”
Carole Willis, chief executive of the NFER, said: “This report shows that the government’s free schools programme has not been very successful at bringing innovation to the education system and encouraging more parents and teachers to set up new schools. What it does highlight is that those new free schools that are opening are increasingly set up and led by multi-academy trusts and are used as a way to meet rising pupil numbers. So, if the government is still committed to the programme’s original purpose then it should review and clarify the mission of free schools.”
I would welcome such a review. My view, shaped over the past four years, is that bureaucrats’ delivery of free school policy is directly frustrating government’s aspirations for it.
Two years ago we were asked to consider becoming a multi-academy trust. We were keen, too, because as well as being a way to be more cost-effective, efficient and retain our best staff, we believe in our brand of education. We want to see other schools embrace our ethos and implement it in a way that suits the needs of their local area, true to the ideals of the free school movement.
We were interested in, and are still interested in, competing to establish such a school in Richmond. However, it didn’t go to a competition. Instead, a multi-academy chain that had planned to open a school on the other side of London, for which there turned out to be no need, was simply appointed. It must have seemed a convenient way to solve a problem. Convenient, but not in keeping with the original mission for free schools. If there’s no competition, what leverage is there to innovate or raise standards? If there’s no input from local groups, how does this reflect the needs of their community? In education, one size doesn’t fit all.
Secondly, free schools like FBS are constantly being frustrated and hampered by slow-moving bureaucracy, red tape and "process". A number of years ago, the then prime minister, David Cameron, declared an all-out war on mediocrity. Michael Gove, then education secretary, wanted free schools to show what was possible: FBS has. But it would have achieved so much more if "the system" supported us in embracing change and was more creative in solving problems.
So, let’s get rid of inefficiency and averageness. Let’s stop blocking, being dismissive and suspicious of change. Let’s not allow our default position to be "it can’t happen", simply because it hasn’t happened before. Let’s allow competition so we really raise the bar, not take easy, convenient decisions which allow large chains to monopolise the market. Let’s be true to the daring, risk-taking, think outside the box mantra of the original free school mission and see if we can be world leaders in education again.
If not, the free school movement will fail.
Alun Ebenezer is the head of Fulham Boys School