Special report: The changing face of education - Michael Gove's school project runs wild and free

From a 'Fame' style academy in Elstree to a college at Silverstone tuned-in to motor racing, the Education Secretary now has far more varieties than Heinz

Richard Garner
Saturday 24 August 2013 22:47 BST

Heinz famously boasted of having 57 different varieties of products. Education Secretary Michael Gove will be topping that when the new school term begins, with 118 different varieties of new schools.

A veritable kaleidoscope of new state-funded schools will open their doors for the first time next month – 93 of them part of the Government's free school programme, with the rest either university technical colleges (UTCs), offering high-class vocational options for 14 to 19-year-olds, or studio schools – smaller institutions offering a similar package and which have links to industry in order to provide their pupils with real work experience.

The 93 free schools, run by a mixture of teacher and parent-led groups, private sponsors and faith-based organisations, will mean that Mr Gove's pet project more than doubles in size this autumn – there are currently 81 open throughout England.

A number of the new schools will offer "alternative provision" for pupils at danger of exclusion from mainstream education, thus taking on the task of pupil referral units run by local authorities, dubbed "sin bins" in the past.

There is a bilingual primary school opening in London that will teach pupils in both German and English from the time they start school, and an academy in Exeter run on Steiner principles – placing more emphasis on child-centred learning and eschewing what it would see as the "exam factory" approach of many state schools. The Steiner approach centres on the idea that children learn in different ways at different stages of their development.

In Hackney, the Hackney Free School (HFS) – a secondary school which is the brainchild of investment banker Andreas Wesemann, among others – will offer a longer school day and "no cap on aspiration". Its pupils were all given a copy of The Odyssey before the summer break and will be expected to have read it when term begins.

The Collective Spirit School in Oldham, greater Manchester, is offering non-denominational secondary education in a borough where there has been criticism in the past that schools are segregated along racial and religious lines.

Then there is Silverstone UTC, which is run with the support of the motor-racing community and offers a grounding for pupils in all aspects of that industry, including the technical training needed by the back-up teams for Formula One drivers, and hospitality.

Many of the schools are still putting the finishing touches to their buildings – including the two mentioned above. For teachers, then, it is hard-hat time as they prepare for the new term.

According to Natalie Evans, of the New Schools Network, a charity set up to help free-school proposers with their applications, around half of the 81 that are already open are in temporary accomm-odation, waiting to move into more permanent sites. Among the sites around the country that host free schools are disused court buildings, police stations, housing association developments and even a fire station.

Ministers have relaxed planning regulations to smooth the passage of new free schools, so that they can operate for their first year without full planning permission.

The programme is not without its critics, many of whom argue that free schools have swallowed up scarce government cash by opening in places where there is no need for extra school places, while areas with dire shortages have been neglected.

The leaders of some parents' groups also argue that the array of choice is bewildering – and that all parents are looking for is a decent school near their home: they do not care what type it is. Stephen Twigg, Labour's education spokesman, has claimed there is currently a shortfall of 120,000 places.

Mr Gove, though, believes the flexibility offered to these schools to pursue their own curriculum offers parents the diversity and choice that has been lacking in the past, and that they are essential to his drive to raise school standards.

Case studies

'We offer core GCSEs plus specialist courses preparing students for the creative world'

Elstree University Technical College is going to offer a wide range of courses in film, TV, drama, the arts and theatre, for 14 to 19-year-olds. The college building is still under scaffolding, but Moira Green, the principal, is certain that it will be ready for term opening on 11 September.

It is one of eight new university technical colleges coming online next month and is located on the site of the former MGM studios in Elstree. It will open with at least 240 students and, by the time it builds up to its full capacity, it could have 800 students. The site will have its own TV and recording studios and students will have to sign up for evening work.

Its lead sponsor is businessman David Meller (who already sponsors a number of academies); other supporters include the BBC, Elstree Studios, Endemol (producers of Big Brother and Benidorm), the Ambassador Theatre Group and the Universal Music Group, plus higher education sponsors such as the University of Hertfordshire.

Endemol will provide work experience, while Universal will offer apprenticeships (and internships) in sales, marketing, PR, digital, recording, business development and administration.

"We're still recruiting for September," Moira Green said. "We offer GCSEs in the core subjects and a range of specialist courses preparing students for the creative world."

'The pupils are average or high ability children who are struggling in mainstream schools'

Some of the pupils at the Thames Valley Free school have been out of the classroom for some time – either because they have been permanently excluded or struggle to cope in a mainstream school. Others have been educated at home by their parents.

Yet the new school, due to open next month in Tilehurst near Reading, reckons its children have the potential to get average or above average GCSE results if they can find the right environment in which to learn.

It is the first free school to be set up by the National Autistic Society. The NAS, which has created its own academies trust to sponsor such schools, plans to open two more – in Lambeth and Cheshire – next year.

"The pupils are average or high ability children who are struggling in mainstream schools because they are on the autism spectrum," said Fiona Veitch, principal of the new school.

"They can have very high levels of anxiety. The transition from primary to secondary school can be difficult. They may manage in primary schools, but when it comes to secondary school it is very challenging."

When it is fully operational, Thames Valley, which will cater for four to 16-year-olds, will have 50 pupils. It will start this September with 18 seven to 13-year-olds.

"We had 30 referrals when it became known we were starting up," said Mrs Veitch. It increased its planned intake from 13 to 18 as a result, because "it is horrible to have to turn people down".

Education Secretary Michael Gove often emphasises the leeway that his new free schools have. Thames Valley, however, makes a virtue of the fact that it will be following the national curriculum and although it cannot offer GCSEs in every subject, there will be a strong science element; a neighbouring secondary school has agreed to provide a teacher for foreign languages.

In some cases, pupils will be transferred back to mainstream education once they have learned coping strategies at Thames Valley. Reading Council has been an enthusiastic backer of the school project, and other councils are showing an interest in the concept.

Lessons learnt

Those who thought Michael Gove's free school initiative would lead to a shedload of schools dedicated to the traditional 1850's curriculum that his critics say he espouses, might have to think again.

Although there are schools that trumpet the academic curriculum – such as the West London Free School pioneered by journalist Toby Young, with its inclusion of Latin – there are some surprising alternative establishments that have opened under the scheme.

There's the Lancashire school following the teachings of Beatles' guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, which believes in the use of transcendental meditation to empower pupils. It had been operating privately and had to be politely reminded that (now that it was a state school) it had to enter its pupils for the Sats (national curriculum tests) for 11-year-olds in maths and English.

Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims have moved quickly to open their own schools, which had proved difficult for them in the past. The Creationists had a go, too, but this year their applications have dwindled – probably as they perceive they have met with little success.

There are also growing numbers of teachers proposing to set up their own schools – as well as established successful schools, such as already Birmingham's Perry Beeches academy, which want to set up satellite schools modelled on the same lines that have delivered their improved standards.

Richard Garner

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