MT FEATURE: DIY free school

With a disused site under renovation, an imaginative curriculum mapped out and experienced staff recruited, Ian Wylie and his wife, the new principal, have created their own free school. But, boy, was it a struggle...

by Ian Wylie
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

An awkward silence concluded our lunchtime meeting with Department for Education (DfE) staff at its northern HQ in Sheffield. Had they not liked our proposed curriculum? Were they uncomfortable with our innovative ideas? Finally, an embarrassed DfE representative spoke up: would we mind paying for the sandwiches they had provided?

That was a year ago, and as we searched our pockets and purses for the correct change in the DfE's new £25m offices, it should have occurred to me that this was a small taste of bigger tests to come. How much of the burden would we be prepared to take on if we - a group of parents and teachers - really wanted to establish our own primary school?

The free school policy is a prominent element of David Cameron's Big Society agenda, but implementing it in a time of austerity has proved challenging for all concerned.

It was only two months ago that we finally received the keys to the disused school site in Northumberland that we hope to reopen this month as Cramlington Village Primary School. Just two months to clear the dandelions and nettles, repair smashed windows, remove graffiti, replace stolen lead flashing, install new heating and wiring, erect security fencing, put in new toilets ...

While Northumberland boasts a national park and coastal area of outstanding natural beauty, more than a third of its children live in some of the most deprived areas of England, most notably in the old coal-mining towns in the south-east of the county.

Cramlington is gathered around its former pits, but it was developed as a new town in the 1960s and is known, principally, for its many roundabouts. Alan Shearer once played for Cramlington Juniors. Paralympic gold medallist Stephen Miller comes from the town, as does comedian Ross Noble. Otherwise, role models are thin on the ground. Aspirations and ambitions here are modest.

The business start-up rate in this corner of Northumberland is also less than half the national average. And at every stage of education - primary, secondary and 16 to 18 - levels of attainment in Northumberland are below the national average.

My wife, Debbie, used to be a primary school teacher in Cramlington until, while trying to find childcare for our son, she spotted a gap in the market for a children's nursery. We bought an old people's home in the town that had gone bust and (while living above the shop) converted it into a children's nursery. Within 18 months the nursery had occupied the whole building. Ten years on, it's probably the most highly regarded nursery in the north-east of England, with three consecutive Ofsted 'outstanding' judgments. It provides jobs for 50 people in the town and cares for more than 100 children each week.

When the Government announced the free school initiative in 2010, my enterprising wife spotted another opportunity: this time to carry the same values, ethos and practices that had proved so effective in the nursery into a child-centred primary school.

Free schools are an extension of the Labour government's academies programme. By the start of this autumn term, as many as half of England's 3,261 secondaries may have converted to self-governing academies. Like academies, free schools are funded directly by the DfE, based on how many pupils enrol, and are independent of the local authority but operated as charitable trusts. They are non-fee-paying and non-selective and can set pay and conditions for staff, pick and choose from the national curriculum, and decide on the length of the school day and term. New free schools can be established by businesses, parents, teachers, charities, faith groups, universities, private schools and not-for-profits. However, school governors can contract private companies to manage a school for a fee.

The first 24 free schools opened in 2011. The school that we're establishing with a dozen like-minded parents and teachers will be one of 72 opening in this academic year. A third wave of 102 has been approved for 2013.

The government's intent, based on American and Swedish experience, is to give parents more choice, to encourage innovation and to raise standards by promoting competition. But it also wants to wrest control from local authorities and power from teaching unions.

That's the government's agenda. We have our own. We want simply to create a small school for the children of Cramlington that focuses on their individual needs and interests. We'll integrate those into an engaging curriculum with aspirational targets, delivered in a flexible way that suits each child.


Children at our school will have much more scope to choose where they learn on a daily basis. There won't be much whole-class teaching in the early years. For example, in reception and year one, they'll be able to choose to learn either indoors or outside for part of their day. They'll have access to iPads and iPod Touches, and a secure IT system will allow parents to share in their children's learning and achievements from home.

We've recruited a head chef, who will help children learn and understand more about cooking and healthy living. We're including cookery spaces in every classroom and an innovative IT space with an interactive floor and images projected onto walls to create 'immersive spaces'. Each child will also have the chance to attend an extra-curricular activity free of charge every day after school.

As a package, we think it's pretty innovative. A DfE adviser admitted that our curriculum was the best she'd read.

It's the kind of innovation that's possible when you're free to start with a clean sheet of paper. But, boy, has it been a struggle. We knew it wouldn't be like starting another business. The challenge of opening a school in less than 12 months with a group of volunteers, we anticipated. The extra bureaucracy, scrutiny, accountability and consultation processes that come with using public money, we expected.

What we didn't foresee was the contrary nature of our working relationship with the DfE which, much of the time, has seemed more determined to frustrate than empower. 'It's your project', we've been told repeatedly, followed usually by a 'but, no, you can't do that'.

Much of that is down to the public sector's acute sensitivity to risk. There are plenty of risks attached to entrusting parents and teachers with taxpayers' money to create a new school for children under a bold but politically contentious policy. I get that. But it's a skewed sensitivity of risk that can, within hours, sanction five-figure sums on large 'framework-approved' contractors, yet spend weeks deciding whether we can be trusted with £10 to procure a memory stick.

Ultimately, that sensitivity to risk has forced us to sever the link between the nursery and the school. Perceived conflicts of interest were deemed more important than the synergies, efficiencies and opportunities that the school and its children would have enjoyed.

And while incompetence would be too harsh a word, at times civil servants have done a remarkably fine impression of not knowing what they are doing. 'We'll get back to you on that' has become a tiresome refrain as we've waited months for simple decisions on a range of issues, from admissions to the reimbursement of expenditure.

We've faced opposition too. Not from parents or children, of course - they've been overwhelmingly supportive, and happy to have another choice of school. It's been from local politicians, keen to protect the status quo. In the UK, we attach emotions to education that don't exist elsewhere. It seems to suit both left and right to puff free schools into another excuse for an ideological bun-fight. Like other free schools, we've been accused of being 'middle-class' - yet we are bound to the same admissions code as state schools. The location of our school and non-selective admissions policy means it will be as inclusive as any you'll find in the north-east.

The views expressed by teaching unions have suggested that they care more for the T&Cs of their members than the needs of children. They fear that greater choice and competition will lead to job insecurity. But it can equally bring opportunities. We've already created six jobs - the governors of the school trust have hired a principal (Debbie, my wife), a vice principal, two teachers, a business manager and the aforementioned chef. Cramlington is a growing town and its existing primary schools are already at capacity. Schools across the country are forecast to struggle to absorb an 8% increase in pupil numbers in the next three years.

I have my own concerns. In Sweden, where free schools originated, many that began, like ours, as small, local initiatives by parents and teacher groups lost much of their individuality as the sector consolidated to form large school chains.

And although I have no particular fondness for local authorities, allowing a secretary of state to become the sole conduit for school funding and the dictator of terms in bilateral contracts with school trusts concentrates too much power in one pair of hands. To my mind, the relationship of accountability should be between client and customer: between schools and their parents and children. But like all entrepreneurs - private, social or otherwise - when presented with an opportunity, we take it.

Just 10 miles down the road at Newcastle University, there is another education entrepreneur opening schools. With a local business partner, Professor James Tooley has built 10 in Ghana in the past two years. This month, they will open another 10, bringing the total number of students enrolled to 12,000.

It's a very different context. There is no government funding, so his schools are not free but 'low-cost private', with students paying the equivalent of just £4 a month. But our objective is the same.

'It's about doing whatever it takes to deliver the most effective education for children,' Tooley tells me in a phone call, over the noise of honking taxis in Accra. 'That's why I do this work in Ghana, not because I'm interested in profit or ideology. I care about kids and finding ways of delivering better education and enhancing life opportunities for poor children. And the priorities should be the same in England.'

As the UK continues to slip down world rankings in numeracy, literacy and science, it's time for a little more boldness and innovation in education - achieved through a focus on the needs of children, rather than structures, ideology or the needs of a profession.

But that's all big-picture stuff. Right now, at England's most northerly free school, we have another classroom to paint.




An education charity backed by hedge fund entrepreneurs including Arpad 'Arkie' Busson, which runs 11 inner-city academies in London, Birmingham and Portsmouth.

Edutrust Academies Charitable Trust (E-ACT)

Sponsors 18 academies under the leadership of Sir Bruce Liddington, schools commissioner in the last Labour government.


American for-profit giant with 391 state school partnerships in the US and 80 in the UK. Approach includes a longer school day and school year, assessments and quarterly learning contracts.

GEMS Education

Dubai-based network of fee-paying schools around the world for 70,000 students from 124 countries, including 10 in the UK.

Harris Federation

Founded and chaired by Lord Harris of Peckham, chief executive of Carpetright, it runs 13 academies in London and the south-east.

Internationella Engelska Skolan (IES)

Swedish for-profit firm with £100m a year turnover. Recently won 10-year, £21m contract to run Breckland Middle School in Suffolk.


Global educational publishing giant, owns exam board Edexcel in the UK and is to offer business degrees from 2013. Has just invested £10m in private schools in the developing world, and wants to provide services to UK free schools.


The firm that runs London's cycle hire scheme and maintains the Docklands Light Railway also supports local education authorities' services in Bradford and Walsall, carries out inspections for Ofsted, trains school leaders, and is to open a special school in Derby.

VT Group

Defence contractor that builds and operates ships for the Navy but also supports more than 500 schools, providing school improvement, education consultancy, ICT solutions, training and conferences.





The government has ruled it out during the life of this parliament, but when addressing the Leveson Inquiry in May, education secretary Michael Gove hinted coquettishly at his open mind about allowing schools to make profits in the longer term.

Within established education circles, the notion of introducing profit to state schools is about as welcome as a cat in a pigeon loft. Even in the independent fee-charging sector, most schools are run by charitable trusts, as are academies and free schools in the state sector.

And yet private companies are already closely involved with state schools, often making big profits from them. Each time a school buys a pencil, computer, cleaning service, desk or chair, there is a company making a profit.

But changing the rules so that providers could set up, own and operate taxpayer-funded schools for profit would be to cross the Rubicon. Politicians such as Graham Stuart, a Conservative chair of the education select committee, say the impact of free schools will be minimal unless companies are allowed to run schools for a profit, and thus raise capital.

But would profit-making schools produce better outcomes for children? There's little doubt at the CBI, which publishes the results of an education study in November. 'School-business partnerships can support improved education delivery by ensuring that resources are managed effectively and routed into improving the quality of leadership and teaching - the most important factors in raising pupil attainment,' says Andy Bagnall, head of public services reform. He points to Babcock's joint-venture with Surrey County Council, which has helped improve standards in its 396 local authority maintained schools and delivered savings of £11.3m. Similarly, Capita has worked with the Harfield Academy in Middlesex to roll out an information management system that has helped to identify and eradicate 90% of behaviour problems and almost tripled the number of students gaining five or more A*-C GCSEs between 2006 and 2010.

According to Anders Hultin, architect of free schools in Sweden, private sector involvement there has raised parent satisfaction with schools by 20%. 'In the UK, profit would help stimulate innovation,' he says. 'In the private sector there is a greater willingness to invest, but also to develop concepts and methodologies that can be replicated from one school to another.

'In the UK state sector, there is a lot of fragmentation, with every school trying to invent its own recipe for success. But in Sweden, many school chains have invested a lot in the intellectual property of what they are doing. And profit also takes time to scale. There are many excellent schools in the UK, but few are interested in growing. When you are a charitable trust, there is no incentive to grow.'

Zenna Atkins, chief executive of Wey Education, which offers a range of services to schools, sees the debate on profit as a red herring. 'Parents don't care about profit so long as schools are giving their children the right outcomes,' she says. 'I would have made academies and free schools open to everyone, including the private sector, where everyone gets the same access to funding, and everyone is held to account. If they make a profit, so what? The key is ensuring contracts that deliver outcomes for kids. It's time for politicians to man up about profit.'


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