'How we started a new school from scratch'

Langley Hall took just months to set up under the Government's free schools scheme. Apart from that, it's like any other primary – only better, claim its founders. Richard Garner pays a visit

It was some time after the opening of her new school that headteacher Jane Sculpher was being confronted by a journalist."I don't get it," he said. "All I can see here is a rather good primary school." He was obviously expecting something radical to leap out from the classrooms when he visited one of Education Secretary Michael Gove's first tranche of free schools.

Sculpher took it as a compliment, though. After all, that was what she and the school's educational director Sally Eaton had been trying to achieve at the new Langley Hall primary academy near Slough in Berkshire.

She would be the first to admit that there were a few teething troubles. However, one problem the school was never going to have was a shortage of pupils. "I'd seen in the local newspapers that there was going to be a shortage of 342 reception class places in the area so I knew there was a demand for it," says Eaton.

"Talking to parents, a lot were travelling to schools outside the area by car – because there were no schools in the direct area for them."

That was one of the reasons why Langley, which has just over 180 pupils and plans to expand to 360, decided not just to start with a reception class and build up to an all-in primary school. They decided to recruit all ages to the school from the beginning.

"In some cases, it might have been a case of parents just wanting a fresh start at a new school. We didn't think there would be many parents of Key Stage Two (seven to 11-year-olds) who would want to move their children but they did."

Recruitment for next year is also buoyant. Recently a neighbouring primary school was put in special measures by Ofsted, the education standards watchdog ,and Langley's telephones started ringing.

That incident, though, points to one of the criticisms of the free school system. It will be much more difficult for schools to pick themselves up after failing if they face mass desertion by parents. Gove and his supporters, though, would argue: why should children be left in an establishment that is obviously failing?

Sculpher is not a critic of the "maintained sector", though. She had been a headteacher at a local authority maintained primary school for 10 years before accepting the post at Langley Hall.

"Jane Sculpher and I had worked together in the past and she wanted to apply," says Sally Eaton. "The trustees saw her and thought she was the best candidate and opted for her as head."

The school does have a distinct vision of the education it offers. Every child, for instance, has to sign up for violin lessons during their first four years. They do not have to show any particular aptitude in advance. "We want to start them from scratch," says Sculpher.

"All those things that are considered extra curricular we do here. Everybody has drama, dance, swimming and music classes. If they want more, they can take part in a swimming club or play musical instruments. It's a question of building their skills and confidence. Building your confidence in a swimming pool will make you confident in other lessons, too."

It works on a theory espoused by creativity "guru" Sir Ken Robinson in an interview with The Independent recently. Sir Ken, who headed a seminal inquiry into creativity in the curriculum just over a decade ago, passionately believes that every child has some talent – it is just up to the school or educator to find it.

The school's vision is spelt out on its website which says: "Children at Langley Hall learn to be thinkers, enquirers, communicators, open-minded and reflective. They are willing to challenge themselves by approaching unfamiliar situations and learning with courage and have a growing sense of independence." Langley Hall's motto is Ad Vitam Paramus, which means: "We are preparing for life."

Free schools have also been given the green light to have non-qualified staff act as teachers – a decision that has puzzled some observers. After all, why would they want to take on untrained teachers if they are designed to raise the standard of state education?

In Langley Hall's case, they have used it to boost their drama and music teaching. "Our drama teacher is off playing Cinderella in pantomime," says Sculpher. "The singing teacher will be away singing in Rome. They're working at what they do. They're not qualified teachers but they've been taught to degree level and are very, very able teachers."

Not everything was plain sailing during the first term. For weeks the school did not have a landline telephone and all calls had to be made through a mobile. One day there were 150 messages on the voicemail.

However, compared with the time it takes to plan a new local authority maintained primary school from conception to opening, Sally Eaton believes the 24 new free schools achieved a minor miracle.

"I have run schools and nurseries in the past," she says, "and I've set up schools from scratch." She also spent time developing childcare training. "Then it became apparent that I'd achieved what I wanted to achieve in that field and I was looking for a new challenge.

"That just happened to be at the time when there was a change of government and the free school initiative was launched." That was just over a year ago. She enlisted the support of the Tribal group, which is aiding a number of free school proposers with their applications to the Department for Education.

The end result was that Langley got the go ahead to open in former college premises as one of the first free schools in the country, at a time when only about 12 per cent of applications were successful.

Looking back at the end of the first term, Eaton and Sculpher say that one of their proudest moments was staging a drama production of Bugsy Malone just before Christmas. Now they believe the teething problems have been ironed out and the school plans to open for its second term with confidence.