(last updated January 2016)
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 is 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.
With Government policy now stating that all schools should become academies or Free Schools by 2020, we can expect a spurt in applications to become Free Schools.
Kent and Medway now have eight Free Schools operating with three more on the way.
The Tiger Primary School in Maidstone was the first to open in September 2012. It is 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 admitted 60 children in both Years R and Year 1 that year. 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. Now in its third year of operation it is proving popular with parents, 14 first choices turned away for September 2015 entry.
Opened in September 2013.
Hadlow Rural Community School To my mind this is the most interesting of the five, 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 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 and appears to have few problems in achieving its aims. Popular for 2014 entry, and expanded its number of Year 7 places from 30 to 60 to accommodate all who wanted a place. In August 2014, the school received a Financial Warning from the Department for Education "to serve as a written notice to improve financial management, control and governance at the Trust as a result of our concerns relating to the Trust’s delivery of its capital new build project, non-submission of required financial returns and failure to provide an adequate response to our June Financial Management and Governance Evaluation visit recommendations". As a result, "all of the delegated authorities will be revoked, and all transactions by the Trust of this nature (regardless of size) must come to the Education Funding Agency (EFA) for approval". However, by February 2015, the position had improved to the extent that the Financial Notice to improve was lifted. In June 2015, the school was found to be Good by OFSTED, who described it as (excerpt)"Hadlow Rural Community School is an academy free school which opened to students in September 2013. It was set up by Hadlow College and is located within the college grounds. There is a strong association with the college, which provides many support services. The school is much smaller than average. Currently, it has students in Years 7, 8, 10 and 11. The 60 places available in Years 7 and 8 are not quite filled and there are 58 students due to join Year 7 in September 2015. The 15 places available in Years 10 and 11 are filled.The school is housed in temporary accommodation. The construction of a new school building, which is scheduled to open in 2016, has started. The proportion of students from minority ethnic groups or who speak English as an additional language is well below average. The proportion of students known to be eligible for the pupil premium, is lower than the national figure. The proportion of disabled students and those with special educational needs is well above average. All students follow a land-based curriculum at Hadlow College one day a week".
Trinity Schoolin Sevenoaks. This was the most politically contentious of the proposals, opposed by Kent County Council and suffered a campaign of denigration from other parties designed to destroy it before opening. The school is a four form entry secondary school, opened with the aim of admitting 50% of its children with a Christian background. In the end it admitted 92 children to its temporary home in 2013, a converted office block, but after many political turns, now has a permanent site planned for 2016 on the grounds of the old Wildernesse School, probablysharingwith the proposed new grammar school satellite. Its future looks promising; in spite of the current unpromising temporary buildings for 2014 entry it turned away 38 first choices for its 120 places. For 2015 it had risen to 82. However, there are concerns over the delay in beginning the new buildings, caught up in a political wrangle, so they won't be completed until at least September 2016. Some parents are reported to be unhappy that their children will spend a third year in temporary accommodation, albeit moving to temporary classrooms on the new site, but it will also be a building site. Found Good by OFSTED in Jun 2015, it was described as (excerpt): "Trinity School is an expanding school which currently educates children in Years 7 and 8. At the time of the inspection, it had 236 students on roll. It is smaller than average-sized secondary schools. Trinity School is oversubscribed. It has enrolled more than its stated number of students as it has lost a number of parental admissions appeals. The school accepted a number of students into Year 7 during the course of its first year of operation and grew quickly from an original intake of 89 to its full capacity of 120. Trinity School is scheduled to move into temporary accommodation in July 2015, on the same site as its new premises, which are due to open in September 2016. Trinity School plans to open a sixth form in September 2018. The proportion of disadvantaged students, those eligible for the pupil premium who attend the school is well below the national average. The number of disabled students and those with special educational needs is also well below the national average. The school is situated on the outskirts of Sevenoaks, approximately 12 miles from the nearest secondary faith-based school. The trustees of Trinity School are committed to ensuring at least good-quality faith based education for a maximum of 50% of its cohort. Admission criteria are clearly set out and strictly enforced".
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. Proving popular with families, with 19 first choices turned away for September 2015 admission, although five other TW primaries were more popular.
Wye 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 widercommunity".In fact, 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 website 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. The school opened with a full roll of 90 children in Year 7, which had been reduced from 120, indicating a limited interest from the community. It has also opened in temporary buildings, but there has been enormous local controversy over its long term site. It now has temporary planning permission for use of its current buildings for three years, but as yet no firm indication of a permanent site. Very popular for 2014 admission, turning away 44 first choices on allocation in March, 74 in 2015. Children living further away than 4.37 miles were not offered place although this will increase after successful grammar school appeals take some of the children away. Still at the temporary Kempe Centre in summer 2015, with no obvious news of a permanent site.
Opened in September 2014
Jubilee Primary Schoolin Maidstone is described in a Press Release as: “Jubilee Primary School will be a two form entry school which will eventually cater for 420 pupils. It will open with two Reception classes with the potential of a Year 1 class if there is sufficient demand. The School will teach the National Curriculum, using it as a springboard for a dynamic and holistic education, tailored to meet the needs of the individual child and specialising in the Arts and in Sport”. It is sponsored by the Jubilee Church based in Upper Stone Street, Maidstone which is a member of ‘Church of the Nations’ an evangelistic and bible teaching based movement of some 200 churches in 40 countries. "The school will be a mainstream primary school with a faith ethos and will be open equally to children of all backgrounds regardless of faith".Like most Free Schools at this stage it is currently without premises, although the Department for Education will be working hard with the sponsors to identify and develop a site for the school. Has opened in an office block previously used by the Kent Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service(CAMHS), apparently with playground space available. In a newspaper interview, the school stated that the Department for Education liked new Free Schools operating in offices. Nearly full in Year R October 2015 in second year of operation. Some problems with permanent premises.
Inspire Special Free Schoolis a very different model, a Special School in Medway, catering for cater for pupils with emotional and behavioural concerns. It will initially have 40 places eventually rising to 80, to be based next to Silverbank Park, a secondary pupil referral unit, . The Oaks building at that Silverbank Park will become a part of the free school, with the rest of the school being built using funds from the government.
The new school is to be co-sponsored by: Greenacre School; the Williamson Trust (Sir Joseph Williamson’s Mathematical School); and Bradfields Special School (presumably under the auspices of Medway Council as it is not an academy). Unusually the Local Authority is integrally involved in the project, which is highly sensible given the difficulties surrounding Statements of Special Education Need and school placements. I look forward to learning more details of what may be a very positive move in Special Education Need.
Opened in September 2015
A new Free School in Thanet, the Ramsgate Free School, opened in 2015, initially admitting up to 60 children into each of Years R and 3. This appears to be an imaginative and proper use of the Free School concept in a District where there is a severe shortage of primary places and, in yet another new model, is to be sponsored by Chilton Primary School, currently a Community school under the control of KCC. The two schools will be led by Executive Head, Christopher Dale, currently headteacher of the heavily oversubscribed Chilton. Nearly full in Year R on first year of operation in October 2015.
Other applications filed or in progress
Government announced approval for two new Free Schools in Kent in May 2015.
Bishop Chavasse Primary School is to open in South Tonbridge in September 2017, run by Bennett Memorial Diocesan school from Tunbridge Wells, opening having been put back a year. It is planned to be an “inclusive school admitting up to 60 children each year from Reception and will provide a high quality, traditional primary education with a Church of England ethos”, and "and prepare children to transfer to a secondary school of their choice (i.e. not just the church schools)" and could give priority for up to 50% of its intake as allowed for in the Schools Admissions Code, although in an initial statement "It is proposed that 25% of places will be allocated on the basis of parental church attendance, and 75% of places will be open enrolment, available to those of all faiths or none in the local community".
The second, to be opened in September 2017 is a secondary school in Maidstone to be run by Valley Invicta Academy Trust to be called The Maidstone School of Science and Technology and which will focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Its admission number will be at least 180 places. There is expected to be a shortage of places in Maidstone secondary schools from 2018 onwards, so this should absorb the pressure, especially at the neighbouring Valley Park School, regularly one of the most oversubscribed schools in the county, for 2015 entry turning away 145 first choices, the second highest number in Kent. Two schools likely to be hit by this are Swadelands in Lenham, although this is increasingly being seen as a school for Ashford children mainly taking in unsuccessful Valley Park applicants from the south east of the town, and New Line Learning, which always has difficulty in attracting students.
A new proposal is for Hope Community School, Northfleet aiming to open in September 2017, in an area where there is a dire shortage of primary school places. It would be part of the New Generation Schools Trust, run by the New Generation Church, an Evangelical Christian Church that already runs a Free School in Bexley. As with the Jubilee Primary School in Maidstone, with a similar background, it will present issues for some families living in the area, as there may be no alternative to this faith school offered. The preferred location for the school is on the Springhead Development, where KCC turned down the opportunity to open its own school a few years ago, on the grounds there would be overcapacity.
The proposed Aspire Free School in Sittingbourne was turned down by the DfE in March, one reason being the lack of Commissioned Places. However, KCC has now agreed to commission all places at Aspire with an EHCP or Statement of Educational Need for the first two years of operation, if the school is approved, and a fresh application has been submitted this month. “The school will cater for those young people aged 7 to 19 years, who have a primary diagnosis of Autism (broadly average to high functioning or have Asperger’s Syndrome). They are likely to have associated difficulties such as ADHD, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Epilepsy and poor Emotional Regulation, often manifesting itself as school refusal, depression and sensory processing difficulties”.