Critics are concerned that the new freeschools could create a two-tier system, and
take even more control from grassroots if funding comes from central government rather
than local authorities. Lucy Jolin visited one of the first free primaries in west
London to discover how it’s working in practice
In the classroom, a teacher is giving her small pupils a lesson in phonics. Outside,
the play area is full of children enjoying the late autumn sunshine. One little girl,
bursting with pride, shows off the green dragons her class made out of wooden spoons.
Welcome to Ark Atwood Primary Academy in Queen’s Park, North London. A nondenominational
primary specialising in maths and the performing arts, it’s one of the first ‘free
schools’ that came into
being under new legislation passed by the coalition government in July 2010.
Now, the first term is under way. ‘It’s different here,’ says Rita Khan, mother of
four-year-old Aleem-Opurbo, one of Atwood Primary’s first intake of pupils. ‘You
see the goals and the
achievements of the school every day.’
Atwood, she says, reminds her of her own school days. ‘It’s learning in a more traditional
manner - but with a twist. Contemporary as well as traditional.’
Headteacher Daniel Upfield says: ‘We have the traditional focus on the basics. We
want children to leave here at age 11 able to read, write and do maths better than
the national average – but not at the expense of personal, social and creative development.’
As the school has academy status, it doesn’t have to stick to traditional opening
hours, and pupils attend from 8.30am to 4pm. This, says Daniel Upfield, allows for
more freedom in the curriculum. So along with literacy, numeracy and phonics lessons
every day, children can also do dance, drama and Mandarin.
‘Running from 8.30am to 4pm gives children an equivalent of an extra day of learning
per week,’ he points out. ‘We have freedom to choose the curriculum we want. We are
following the Early Years curriculum – but adapting it to suit our children.’
What are free schools?
New legislation introduced by the coalition government in July 2010 gave groups who
wanted to set up their own schools a mechanism to do it. These might be groups of
parents or teachers, a faith
group, a charity, or an education provider such as Ark or E-ACT. So a ‘free school’
is simply a school set up under this particular legislation. Some free schools are
entirely new and some are
existing schools which have chosen to reopen under the free schools legislation.
All free schools must be approved by the
Department of Education, they must be inspected by OFSTED, and they are not allowed
to make a profit.
How many are there?
24 free schools in England have been set up since July 2010. These include primary
schools and secondary schools. A further 87 are due to open soon.
How are they different?
Free schools have ‘academy’ status. This means that they get their money directly
from central government, while mainstream schools get their money from central government
authorities. Their academy status means that free schools aren’t
controlled by local authorities. They have more control over certain aspects of the
way they operate.
How are they funded?
They get the same amount of money direct from central government that a local authority
will get to spend on each school. The difference is that if the funding goes through
the local authority, it takes a percentage to pay for central services spread across
all its schools, such as special needs provision. Free
schools don’t have to give up this percentage to the local authority so they cut
out the middle-man. But if they are run by an education provider such as ARK Schools,
the provider will take a percentage instead although it may be less than the local
authority would take. Free schools are also given start-up grants direct from central
Are they all faith schools?
No. The first wave of free schools includes a Hindu school, a Sikh school, two Jewish
schools and several schools run on Christian principles. However, a free school doesn’t
have to be a faith school – the majority are non-denominational.
Why should I investigate a free school?
Many free schools specialise in certain subjects, such as maths or the performing
arts. Some have extended school days. Some free schools are making smaller class
sizes a feature. Others have the same amount as in mainstream primaries.
How can I get my child in?
Every free school has to abide by the School Admissions Code which mainstream schools
also have to follow. Some elements are mandatory - for example, no school is allowed
to use interviews to
select pupils. Others are guidelines that schools can follow if they wish. In oversubscribed
schools various criteria are applied to establish who gets a place. The Code is currently
under review and may change soon. A major change suggested is allowing free schools
to give priority to pupils from poorer backgrounds.
Unlike most free schools, Atwood Primary wasn’t set up by a group of parents or teachers,
or a faith group. It came into being when Westminster Council was seeking ways to
deal with a shortage of local primary school places and approached UK education charity
ARK Schools. In its first term, Atwood has 59 children of reception
age, divided into two classes. It will eventually have 420 pupils.
Rita Khan says: ‘The longer days, the specialisation in maths, and the emphasis on
music and performing arts all appealed to me. It’s also a small school and the pupil-teacher
ratio is a lot lower.’
Setting up a new school has been a challenge, but Daniel Upfield believes that it
also has its advantages. ‘You don’t have anyone saying: “But we used to do it like
this”,’ he points out. ‘It’s a great opportunity to do everything the way you want
to from the beginning.
‘We do need to remember to think of everything – from how the children line up in
the playground to how we’re going to do assessment practices. We’re constantly testing
things, evaluating them and changing them if we need to. There will be things that
we do differently in our second year,’ he adds.
Walking around the school, its ethos is clear to see – words like ‘aspiration’, ‘integrity’
and ‘perseverance’ are everywhere. ‘At Atwood, our values culture underpins everything
we do,’ says
Upfield. ‘Children are introduced to words like ‘”integrity” and they know that it
means being honest and being their best selves.
Underpinning our values are high ambitions for pupils’ levels of aspiration and achievement.
We have strong expectations that children will achieve at or above national levels.’
Rita Khan agrees. ‘Aleem-Opurbo actually comes out with words like “integrity”,’
she says. ‘He explains to me what it means.
Sometimes he gets it mixed up! I find that very sweet but I also think it’s a very
good thing for him to have in his head.’
With 24 free schools already in operation and a further 87 set to open next year,
it seems that they’re going to be part of the education landscape for the foreseeable
future. Rita Khan would like to see more schools like Atwood. ‘If I had the choice
of sending every child to school it would be a school like this,’ she says.
‘I think increased choice can only help to widen the field for parents,’ says Upfield.
‘I believe it’s really important for schools to work in collaboration. It doesn’t
matter whether it’s a free school or an academy or a state primary – at the end of
the day, it’s about offering the best possible education for the children.’
The New Schools Network (www.newschoolsnetwork.org)