The teachers giving lessons in life beyond the classroom

Two enterprising pioneers are setting up a free school that doesn't forget the students when they leave.
Click to follow
The Independent Online

For years teacher Kay Johnston watched while youngsters slipped from school to the drug and gang culture or a life on the dole.

"Even those who came from supportive families found it a little bit hard," said Mrs Johnston, who has taught in south London comprehensives for several years.

"For those children who don't they were completely at sea. You see them falling foul of the law and even being killed."

Now she and a fellow teacher, Anne Broni, head of maths at a south London boys' school, are planning to set up their own "free" school to combat the problem.

Every pupil at the school – which is to be set up in the Lewisham area – will be given their own mentor to encourage them to learn a skill so they can get a job when they leave school or university.

They will also be guaranteed three months' work experience upon leaving school so there will be no need to go straight on to the dole and the streets.

The two teachers are adamant that their school – which is being branded as a "nursery to industry" school – will be very different.

It will take youngsters in at nursery level at the age of three providing them with specialist teachers in all the different subject areas from the age of seven – instead of having just one classroom teacher for every lesson.

The idea is the same as that pursued by TV chef Jamie Oliver in his recent television programme, Jamie's Dream School, where he garnered a range of celebrities from different walks of life to enthuse hard-to-teach pupils with their subject expertise.

At least Mrs Johnston and Ms Broni can claim to have thought of that first. Mrs Johnston first pursued the idea five years ago when she approached Croydon Council for support to establish the school.

"They said they would only be interested if it was a private school," she said, "so they didn't have to pay for it."

However, she revived the idea when Michael Gove, Coalition Education Secretary, outlined his flagship "free" school proposals – allowing parents, teachers and faith groups to set up their own schools with state aid.

"There's nothing political about what we're trying to do," she said. "It's just that it's the only way to get support for it."

The school, which will be called Diaspora High School – has as its creed that it is "a school for reception pupils to 19-year-olds which offers stability, progression and excellent academic courses running alongside high quality vocational studies".

The two teachers are planning to open their school next September by taking youngsters in to the reception class and the first year of secondary school.

No class will be of more than 25 pupils and the school will gradually build up to maximum capacity in seven years – eventually offering A-level classes.

Every child will learn a language from the moment they start and the duo believe that – by offering a education from three to 19 – they will offer a continuity that is often missing from the state sector.

However, it is the secondary school that will offer the most radical proposals.

Mrs Johnston and Ms Broni are already scouting the neighbourhood for mentors who will befriend pupils and help them plot their way through their career paths. And these mentors will help in providing work experience later.

"It could be anyone – plumbers, engineers, doctors," said Mrs Johnston. "They will operate as a second or third parent – depending on whether the child comes from a single parent family. They will be made aware of the youngster's performance throughout their schooling so they can help them along."

The school is also planning to operate a skills audit of parents – so they can tap into expertise in the community to help out as mentors. This will then be used in special "enrichment classes" where those with skills will offer training to out-of-work parents so they can get off the dole.

"For instance, a qualified electrician could offer training to another parent," said Mrs Johnston. "Someone who's a brilliant cook could pass those skills on."

The youngsters will go out on work experience during the last two years of compulsory schooling – but the key to the school's success is the offer of three months' work in their chosen vocation immediately after they either leave school or university.

Interest in the idea has been overwhelming from parents.

"I walk around with leaflets in my bag about the school," said Ms Broni, "and people say 'that's a fantastic idea - we really think it's great.'"

With all the controversy the "free" schools policy has engendered with critics claiming the schools are only for "pushy parents", Mrs Johnston said there had been only two voices raised against it.

"It is something that's different," she said. "They are opening more all-aged schools but in the end they just spit the kids out at the end of their schooling, too. "We just want to get the youngsters away from the benefits culture and where that leads."