First day for flagship free schools

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It was the first day of term today for two of the Government's flagship free schools.

Aldborough E-ACT Free School in east London and Krishna-Avanti primary school, Leicester, the first two to open in the country, flung open their doors to new pupils, parents and teachers.

Some 120 children attended the London school, in the Seven Kings area of Redbridge, for an induction day, with lessons starting tomorrow.

Aldborough Free School will take children aged four to six to go into reception and year one classes this year.

The school, which aims to have 420 pupils up to age 11 by 2016, will have a shortened four-week summer holiday, and may extend some half terms.

Principal Nicola Percy said she was delighted by the reaction the school has had.

As a ribbon was cut to officially open the school, established by education organisation E-ACT, she told parents and pupils: "I am absolutely over the moon. This morning I was so excited, I was shaking."

She thanked parents for their "support, enthusiasm and fund-raising ideas".

The school day will run from 8am to 6pm - with time for a breakfast club before lessons and after-school activities.

Miss Percy said it was a "long-awaited and very special day".

She said: "I have a very strong belief that schools are a place for communities to have as a focal point and that school is an environment for everyone to learn, no matter what your age."

She admitted she nearly didn't apply however. "I was a little bit cautious and wasn't entirely sure about the new schools - it was all a bit new.

"But once I'd started speaking to people who were in the game and wanted to push forward with the schools, I realised there was nothing bad about this."

Miss Percy said part of the E-ACT vision was inclusion and said there had been "some misunderstanding" about free schools being undemocratic.

She added: "Free schools are all about choice, and parents now have more choice."

Sir Bruce Liddington, director general of E-ACT - which already sponsors academies - said: "We're very excited. This is the first E-ACT free school and it's one of the first in the country. E-ACT is hugely supportive of the Government's policy to give parents more choice.

"In the London borough of Redbridge, there's a real shortage of primary places and so the parents are absolutely delighted to find they've got a school close to where they live where there is a place for their children."

Parents said they were looking forward to their children being part of the school. Asma Zeeshan, 24, whose five-year-old daughter Mehek Afzal is starting lessons tomorrow, said: "The school is really good. It's better than I expected.

"We saw the building on the internet and it looked old, but inside it's really modern.

Her husband Zeeshan Afzal, 26, said: "It doesn't bother me that it's not local authority. It's a good thing - they're doing it for the betterment of the children."

Some people have been less than enthusiastic about the free school movement, however.

Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), said: "The free school policy is in fact completely undemocratic and a huge waste of public money, established regardless of need, with contempt for the local community while privileging small sectional interests.

"The continued refusal of the Government to reveal the cost of this policy is also totally unacceptable during a period of repeated cuts in funding for every other school in the country."

The Krishna-Avanti primary school will give pupils a Hindu faith-based education, with daily Hindu prayers, a vegetarian diet, and the chance for pupils to take part in yoga, meditation and the arts.

In total, 24 free schools, which are semi-independent state schools set up by parents, teachers, faith groups and other organisations, are to open this month.

Patrick Roach, deputy general secretary of the NASUWT, the largest teachers' union, said: "We are on the side of parents and public who are opposed to free schools. Free schools are a costly and unnecessary experiment in children's education that provides no guarantees to parents or to children and young people.

"There is no guarantee about the curriculum that will be provided in these schools or that pupils will in future be taught by qualified teachers.

"There is no guarantee that free schools will raise standards of education."

He said there were also "serious concerns about the lack of transparency" around free schools, and added: "The Government is spending huge sums of money without proper scrutiny."

Education Secretary Michael Gove said: "Too many children are being failed by fundamental flaws in our education system. The weakest schools are concentrated in our poorest towns and cities, and we are plummeting down the international education league tables.

"By freeing up teachers and trusting local communities to decide what is best, our reforms will help to raise standards for children in all schools."

Of the free schools opening this month, 17 are primary schools, five are secondaries and two are for all ages. Six of the 24 are faith schools, or have a faith ethos.