The free school revolution: Behind the scenes at the first parent-led secondary

They have proved to be among the Government's most controversial innovations. Beginning a three-part series, Richard Garner goes behind the scenes at the first parent-led secondary, which will open its doors to pupils in September

Thursday 17 March 2011 01:00 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Of all the plans for the Government's flagship "free" schools, the one being promoted by journalist and author Toby Young in west London is probably attracting the most controversy. Pro-comprehensive campaigner and journalist Fiona Millar refers to it disparagingly as the "comprehensive-grammar, secular-faith, Latin-speaking, liberal-education school".

Young is equally dismissive of her comments, demanding an apology after she quoted an unidentified local resident saying it is "ruthless" about getting the site it wants.

The war of words is in danger of masking just exactly what it is that the West London Free School, the first to clear every hurdle to open for pupils this September, is aiming to do. Well, to borrow a phrase from former Prime Minister Harold Wilson – used on the school's own website – it is about setting up "a grammar school for all" in the neighbourhood. The school, which will have 840 pupils when it is fully operational, will adopt an unashamedly academic curriculum. Latin will be compulsory for all youngsters up to the age of 14, setting will be the order of the day in maths from the start of secondary schooling, and pupils will be given the opportunity to study at least two foreign languages up until GCSE level.

It is, in fact, the epitome of what Education Secretary Michael Gove would like to see in a secondary school, as it will cover all the subjects that are eligible for his new English baccalaureate – available to all youngsters who get A* to C-grade GCSE passes in maths, English, a science, a foreign language and a humanities subject – history or geography.

Tom Packer, the newly appointed head teacher of the West London Free School, acknowledges that its curriculum would not necessarily be suitable for every child. "It might be that that kind of curriculum is not appropriate for all children – but it is a curriculum that will enable them to think for themselves," he says. "It is not just about results and packing children in for easier subjects so the school gets more A* to C grades for the league tables."

Packer, who is currently head teacher of Teesside High School, a non-selective independent school near Middlesbrough, was one of 160 applicants for the post. "It was the chance of a lifetime to start up a new school from scratch," he says. "When you take over a school, you inherit the good bits and the bad bits. You've got those people who have been there for a long time and might be prone to saying, 'We do it this way because we've always done it this way'."

While the philosophy of the school might be summed up by Harold Wilson's comment – made when Labour was launching the drive towards a fully comprehensive system – the schools that he was talking about would not have been so unashamedly academic, as they had to provide for the vocational side of education, too. Young's West London Free School is, if you like, the antidote to the new University Technical Colleges being set up for 14- to 19-year-olds by former Education Secretary Kenneth (now Lord) Baker. These will concentrate on providing a top-class vocational education in areas such as engineering and construction. Parents, however, are unlikely to be given a choice between the two as it depends on which area of the country they are set up in. Lord Baker's first colleges are in Staffordshire and Essex.

Critics of the West London Free School have claimed that it will cream off middle-class parents from the local state schools. Its admission policy, though, is complicated – though partly designed to ensure that it counters any charge it is selecting pupils by their parents' ability to pay high mortgages: 45 per cent of places are offered according to the straight-line distance from the home to the school, 30 per cent of places will be allocated by lottery to pupils within a three-mile radius of the school, the rest on a five-mile basis (except for 10 per cent, who will be chosen for their aptitude for the school's chosen specialism – music). So far, 445 parents have applied for the first 120 places on offer at the school.

Packer counteracts the criticism by saying: "If one simply says [that] because there is a danger it might be peopled by the white middle classes, let's not go for it – that would be wrong. We would then be saying to people, 'It is not on offer to you because we don't want to offer it to the middle classes'. Parents will decide what they want for their children's education."

The project's organisers have held a round of meetings to explain their vision to local community groups and its potential feeder primary schools in an attempt to make access as wide as possible – though Packer acknowledged that it would be interesting to study the first year's intake to see how it was made up and whether it would be necessary to try again to widen access to it next year.

Teachers locally have other concerns about the proposal, too. One of the criteria used by the Government to judge "free school" proposals is whether a large proportion of children in the borough under question (in this case, Hammersmith and Fulham) are educated outside the borough. In this case, says Dennis Charman, local secretary of the National Union of Teachers, the statistics are misleading – because just as many children from outside the borough come into Hammersmith and Fulham for their education. In his case, he sends one of his daughters to Holland Park school in Kensington and Chelsea and the other to Chiswick school in Hounslow – simply because they are the easiest to reach by local bus services even though they are out of the borough.

"Toby Young says, 'I've got a project to solve a problem that a lot of people don't think exists'," Charman says. "Almost all the secondary schools in the area are rated 'good' or 'outstanding' by Ofsted (the education standards watchdog), yet he says he's going to do better than them. Other heads have done tremendous work in turning out outstanding schools – but all that work is unrecognised in this proposal." He says he does not dispute the need for a new secondary school in the borough, but the local authority is already planning to open a multimillion-pound new academy in the area of greatest need.

The borough has already had four proposals to set up "free" schools within its boundaries – two secondary and two primary. If they all receive the go-ahead, it will make a nonsense of local planning for children's needs, Charman argues.

For Valerie John, who has chosen the school for her 10-year-old daughter, Ada, the decision was simple. She was doing Latin and able to study to play five musical instruments at her local primary school – and no other state secondary school could provide such a rounded curriculum for her. "I can't find anything like this elsewhere," she said. "It is a blessing for parents like me."

Meanwhile, there are allegations that the school has been "ruthless" in pursuit of a home. Its permanent site is Palingswick House – a stately home currently housing a number of voluntary groups, which has obviously caused uproar in the community as they will have to go to make way for the school. The council, however, says it was planning to sell the building anyway.

The school will stand or fall on whether it can deliver on its high academic standards. As with all the free school projects, on that we shall just have to wait and see.

Education free-for-all

* The West London Free School is the first free school that will be ready to open for pupils in September. A further nine which have reached the advanced planning stage are in line to follow suit.

* Four of this first tranche are religious schools – one Hindu, one Jewish and two Christian.

* The remainder include four primaries and one secondary school set up by parents.

* A further 31 applications have had their business designs approved by Education Secretary Michael Gove but have not yet moved on to the second stage.

* One of these is an existing private school dedicated to the teachings of the Beatles' guru, the Maharishi Yogi.

* A second, Batley Grammar School, is an independent school and member of the elite Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, which wants to transfer to the state sector.

* The remainder include one Muslim boys' school in Blackburn, a Sikh school in Birmingham and an academy in Northamptonshire specialising in teaching theatre and stagecraft to children from the age of 10.

* Gove has yet to rule on a further 280 or so applications – which include the controversial proposal by evangelical Christians to open an academy in Newark, near Nottingham, which will have creationism at the heart of its ethos and teach in science lessons that evolution is only a theory.

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