(last updated 18 Janaury 2013)
The inspiration for Free Schools, government funded, privately owned, free of most of the constraints government sees fit to lay with maintained schools is Sweden where these have operated for many years. In May 2010, Swedish education minister Bertil Ostberg is reported to have said in a widely quoted interview: "We have actually seen a fall in the quality of Swedish schools since the free schools were introduced." "The free schools are generally attended by children of better educated and wealthy families, making things even more difficult for children attending ordinary schools in poor areas." He added: "Most of our free schools have ended up being run by companies for profit." More recently, government has sought to show the success of some Charter Schools (the US equivalent of Free Schools in in New York and Chicago) is evidence of the potential opportunities for English Free Schools. However ,there is considerable evidence that whilst some high profile Charter Schools are very successful, overall results are moderate. One can similarly expect that some high profile Free Schools in this country will be successful where there si excellent leadership, but such leadership can operate in all types of school and is not unique to Free Schools, unless they can all offer higher salaries to attract the best headteachers out of mainstream schools.
Paul Carter, Leader of Kent County Council, who has visited Sweden on a study tour of Free Schools, is quoted as saying:“Local authorities still have statutory functions to perform. They have to arrange and organise school admissions, statements for special educational needs pupils – a whole range or services that need paying for. Free Schools … don’t have the statutory duty to carry out these responsibilities.” He concludes that:
“At the moment, the more academies and Free Schools you operate, under the current funding arrangements, the less maintained schools would get.” (Hargreaves/BBC News, 2010).
Kent has one Free School due to open In September 2012: The Tiger Primary School in Maidstone on the site of the New Line Learning Academy operated by the Future Schools Trust, that runs both New Line Learning Academy and the Cornwallis Academy also in Maidstone. It is admitting up to 60 children in both Years R and Year 1, although figures are hard to come by as it is not yet part fo the Kent School Admission process. Key distinctive features include (in order): a focus on Mandarin alongside English; training to improve numeracy; encouraging all children to play a musical instrument; being open from 7.30 to 6 p.m. of particular benefit to working parents; and a healthy breakfast, lunch and tea on offer to all pupils. There is limited information available on the website. You can read my comments on recent developments here. In a worrying development, I have been contacted by a parent whose child was offered a place at the school in Year 2 for September, although the school does not have approval to admit Year 2 children! The offer has now been withdrawn.
In July 2012 Government gave approval for 102 new Free Schools to be set up in England, in 2013 or later. You will find the full list here. The Department for Education makes great play of the fact that over two thirds of these are in the most deprived communities in the country, so Kent is clearly not typical in that its four schools are in leafy Hadlow, Sevenoaks, Tunbridge Wells and Wye. The schools have very different characters, and you will find more information and comment on them below.
Hadlow Rural Community School To my mind this is the most interesting of the four, based on and at Hadlow College which primarily offers 'land-based' courses for students aged from 16 through to those taking degrees and beyond. The school website notes: "With the same ambition and drive for excellence for every young person, Hadlow College wishes to set up a Free School to provide opportunities for young people to access education through rural provision. This will provide an alternative curriculum for those young people for whom land based is a first choice route and for those that have found it difficult to access a traditional education.The Rural Community School will offer the opportunity for young people to learn through a practical curriculum which would support the development of the English Baccalaureate curriculum through an innovative delivery model". It is the only one of the four projects with definite premises available. It is designed to cater for local children from Year 7 onwards. My main caveat is whether this is too soon to be pointed towards such a specific course of study, but it does promise a distinctive ethos and curriculum for local children who currently travel to Paddock Wood or Tonbridge for their secondary education. The school is now planning its new buildings, having met with designers and architects last week, plans are starting to formalise and take shape for the"brand new, state of the art facilities".
Sevenoaks Christian Free School (CFS), now to be called Trinity School. This is the most (or only) politically contentious of the proposals, opposed by Kent County Council, which has alternative plans for increasing school provision in hard pressed Sevenoaks. The Council approved plans in principle for a four form entry grammar school annexe (both these two competing proposals eyeing up the redundant Wildernesse School site), and two additional forms of entry at the Knole Academy in Sevenoaks. The CFS plan is for a four form entry secondary school, admitting 50% of its students from practising Christian families if the demand is there. The remainder are likely to be siblings, and those living closer to the school, although oversubscription critieria have not yet been published. You will find several articles on this website discussing the issues including (1) and (2). An organisation called Sevenoaks Action for Community Education which tries to look at all the options from a position of concern for the shortage of places, held an open 'Question Time' last night at the Knole Academy to explore the issues further. I was a member of the panel. The main concerns raised relating to the Christian Free School centred around its religious allegiance and admission policies. My own view is that there is a proven shortage of school places in Sevenoaks, with a large number of non-selective boys attending schools in Tonbridge because of the failure of the now defunct Wildernesse School. CFS cites the success of Bennett Memorial (CofE) and St Gregory's (RC), two highly popular and successful church schools as examples to follow, although both have higher proportions of religious affiliation in their oversubscription criteria. Both also draw children currently from Sevenoaks, so some of these may now choose the CFS. It is therefore impossible to quantify demand because of the nature of current movement of students between the West Kent towns, but if there were two good non-selective (all ability) schools operating in the town with CFS at 4 forms of entry and Knole at 8, there would be sufficient demand from Sevenoaks and District to make both viable. I believe this to be a better option than enlarging Knole by a further two forms of entry, with the likelihood of even more demand in the future. However, the big obstacle will be that of premises, for KCC will surely be reluctant to release the Wildernesse for this proposal, having been unhappy with the application and surely hoping to use it for the proposed annexe, if indeed they resist the temptation to sell the whole Wildernesse site for its enormous development value. There are already examples of approved Free Schools unable to be followed through because of lack of premises.
The Wells Free School, Tunbridge Wells. The school website states: "People wanted something more intimate with smaller class sizes, giving children the chance to be genuinely known and understood yet purposefully guided by their teachers to be the best that they could be. Furthermore there was a desire for breaking down barriers within the community, enabling people of all backgrounds and all generations to connect and feel involved. Together we will educate the next generation to achieve excellence; offering structure to feel secure, freedom to grow, and passion to inspire a lifetime's love of learning". It is seen as a response to the chronic shortage of primary school places in Tunbridge Wells discussed in several places on this website, including here. However, with a planned intake of 22 children it is debatable whether it will make a great impact on the place pressures, although the small classes in a state funded school will be very welcome for those families whose children gain places. January 2013 - The Wells Free School continues to argue its philosophy of a small school with small classes. If only government had made funding available for more maintained schools to remain small with small classes, as these are clearly popular! However, government funding does not allow this for maintained schools. The school writes: "We are negotiating with Berkeley Homes, who are keen to have TWFS as part of their brand new development on the old Kent and Sussex Hospital site. A new-build will necessarily take longer to achieve than the available time we’ve got until opening. Therefore we will be using temporary accommodation in the meantime. We are working to ensure that this temporary building is located on the K&S site, however to ensure fairness in our application process, we will be using the permanent building as our point of reference when allocating places". In other words, the school would serve the new build, except that places will be allocated before the new houses arrive; but in the longer term it will make little if any impact on the shortage of places in Tunbridge Wells.
Wye Free School, Wye near Ashford. The proposal is for a small, comprehensive (non-selective) secondary school in the village of Wye, hopefully situated in the premises of the historic buildings previously occupied by Wye Agricultural College. The website states: "An all ability, co-educational school for 11 – 18 year olds providing excellent teaching within a caring, supportive environment;Strong pastoral support so that the strengths, weaknesses and individual needs of every pupil are known and provided for . The important core curriculum plus an extensive range of extra-curricular activities to enhance and support the core; academic success is key but the acquisition of a wide range of skills is equally valuable; A powerful sense of mutual benefit, the pupils giving to and gaining from the local and wider community". What is likely is that this proposal is for a fairly standard offering, catering mainly for the children of Wye and surroundings, contrary to current thinking that a secondary school needs to be of a size to cater for most interests and aptitudes. They could have particular difficulty in supporting the range of extra curricular activities they anticipate, a common test being - will there be enough boys to form a football team? You will find full details here. At present it sounds very idealistic, seeking to attract all abilities across the polarised grammar/non selective system in Kent. Private schools in East Kent mainly cater for children who have not been found selective under the Kent Eleven plus, and similarly one sees very few parents of able children being attracted such a small comprehensive school. The proposal to focus on the academic curriculum curriculum of the English Baccalaureate indicates the philosophy of the proposers, although their press release paints a highly ambitious programme, apparently catering for all interests and aptitudes (nothing wrong with that) which may be difficult to achieve in such a small school. Part of the thinking behind the proposal may be for children to avoid the large and socially diverse non selective schools in Ashford and Kennington, and again, there is nothing wrong with self interest - its just that it would be paid for out of the shrinking funds available for state schools nationally. January 2013 - the application has run into controversy as the site which produced the inspiration for the application is not now being used. Instead a new school will be built using education funds, although parents can take part in a consultation about the proposals. Details here.
The Kings Academy, in Kings Hill (primary) is already featured in these pages, although I do not know what has happened to the proposal. However, there is considerable concern amongst parents over the shortage of primary school places in the area, a Facebook Campaign beginning at http://workingpartykingshill.blogspot.co.uk/
Katie Price, media personality, author, former glamour model, occasional singer and businesswoman, is promoting a new Free School in Kent to cater for children with visual impairment and other disabilities, following the impending closure of the independent Dorton House in Seal near Sevenoaks, run by the Royal National Institute for the Blind. Her daughter currently attends the school which is closing through lack of demand. How wonderful it would be if all parents whose children have disabilities that are not properly catered for in the education service could start up such a state funded enterprise to cater fro their own children, not just those who lose their private school places.