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Primary Education News
News Does the government really want innovation in free schools?
Suspicions are growing that truly original ideas for schools that could help disaffected children are being rejected. Rachel Williams reports on bids that didn't make it
After almost two decades running a successful charity dedicated to helping vulnerable young people, Richard Draper has come to a firm conclusion about children and education. "There's a proportion of young people," he says, "who are just not school-shaped. Trying to force them to be part of the system, a lot of the time, is really painful for them and their parents."
When the education secretary, Michael Gove, announced his free schools policy, Draper, who was appointed MBE for services to children in 2006, saw an opportunity. "I thought, here's a chance to mainstream something around an alternative," he says. Benjamin's school – named, like the Benjamin Foundation, the Norfolk charity of which Draper is chief executive, in memory of his eldest son, who was killed in a motorbike accident in 1992 aged 17 – was to have offered pupils a learning experience that took place largely outside the classroom, from natural environments to theatres and engineers' workshops. Students would have researched and recorded their studies at five bases around the county. At the foundation's small independent school in Great Yarmouth, attended mainly by looked-after children, a similar approach has already seen impressive results, Draper says. Benjamin's school would have been open to all young people.
It was a vision that impressed the Innovation Unit (IU), the respected not-for-profit social enterprise that works with public-sector bodies to improve services, with the way it altered the view of "school" as being confined almost entirely to one building. There were 153 children signed up, with a target of 300 for the opening in 2014, more than 40 fully trained teachers committed to offering help, and an email list of more then 250 supporters. The scheme also had the support of the local authority and several local schools.
Earlier this year, Benjamin's school was turned down by the Department for Education, for the second time – despite having, in Draper's view, addressed issues previously raised. This time, the DfE outlined concerns about the curriculum, educational expertise, parental demand and financial planning. But it also warned that if the group were to reapply, it should consider starting from a "blank sheet".
For Draper, those words suggested the school was never going to get the go-ahead in the form they'd dreamed of: it was simply too unlike the government's idea of what a school looked like.
As the latest applicants await a verdict on their plans, suspicions are growing that those calling the shots are less willing to approve ideas that are significantly different from the traditional school.
Innovation has always been touted as part of the philosophy of the free schools agenda. It's right up there in section 1.3 of the guidance on how to apply. "The whole point of the free schools policy," it says, "is that it should encourage innovation and be driven by the vision and passion of those proposing a school."
Yet the IU, once part of the then Department for Children, Schools and Families, is concerned that not enough innovative free schools are getting approved. The unit believes, after discussions with four failed applicants, that the system does not do enough to support them.
Right from when they start filling in the forms, says Louise Thomas, the unit's programme lead on education, the format is geared towards traditional structures. Feedback on failed applications was poor, she says, leaving groups unsure as to why they had been turned down and what they could do to improve their bid.
And the most original models seemed to come from parent and community groups, who were put at a serious disadvantage compared with large providers, academy chains and faith schools, by the crippling demands of the process on both their finances and time. While applicants can get some support to write their bid from the New Schools Network, there is no funding available to help them work with innovation experts.
Why does innovation matter? "The current design of schools has been going for about 50 years and it consistently fails about 40% of students," Thomas says. "There are lots of really successful attempts, around the world, to rethink what school needs to look like to meet the challenges we are facing. We've seen some really interesting attempts to do that by groups of parents in this country, and the process they have to go through seems to deny them that in at least some instances.
"What was really striking in the conversations I had was how discouraged people felt, and how little support there was for them to seriously consider rethinking what school might look like."
The Oxford New School – aka ONSchool – was to have offered a mix of subject teaching and project-based learning. The latter approach is cited by the IU as being hugely successful in the US.
Pupils at ONSchool, which aimed particularly to improve outcomes for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, would have completed cross-curricular projects, spending at least two weeks on the same piece of work. Personalised learning was another feature, with every student attending a fortnightly one-to-one meeting with a personal tutor. But the group behind the proposal were dismayed by a comment in their feedback raising concerns about withdrawing pupils from the same lesson every time for such meetings – suggesting to them that the DfE official failed to understand that the flexibility of their proposed curriculum meant this wouldn't happen.
"They're imagining a lesson with 30 children with a teacher at the front," says Eylan Ezekiel, an education consultant and former primary teacher who led the bid. "We'd spent 150 pages explaining that that's not the model we're using. These are the people making the decisions and there isn't that expertise in the department. If you want innovation, then you have to have people who are expert in it to assess, support and enable it."
In Suffolk, the Felixstowe Community school group's plan for a "human-scale" approach that would have allowed every teacher to know the name of every child has also caught the IU's eye. This school would have been divided into five learning areas – English, maths, science, sports and music and arts – each headed by an individual director, with 10% of learning taking place in the community. Serving children with special educational needs was to have been a priority.
Their rejection letter said that although the idea for community learning was innovative, the group had failed to show how it would work. There were significant gaps in the trustees' expertise and skill set, it added. But a group of ordinary parents without wealthy or well-connected backers is bound to struggle with the process unless far more support is built in, says group member Anna Tink. "The problem with the whole system was they wanted parent groups and then they told us we weren't capable of running the school. That's their fault – they asked us.
"Perhaps I was hoping they would say, 'This is a fantastic idea, what resources can we help you with?' Three years ago we were very excited. I can't tell you how sad it makes me feel that we've failed."
The DfE maintains that it encourages innovation and says that in 2012 almost half of the successful applications were from "parent, community or charity groups". A spokesperson says: "We have specifically given free schools the freedom to innovate, for example, around the curriculum and the length of the school day and school term." But the department points out that "the application process is competitive and only the strongest applications are successful".
Tink's palpable sense of hurt is echoed by Draper and Ezekiel. None maintains their bids were turned down solely because of their innovation. But they all believe it played a role. And all are dismayed that their attempts to meet what they judged as genuine local need have been dismissed.
"We believed we were the very voice the DfE wanted to hear and respond to," Draper says. "It doesn't feel that way in reality. I don't see a great deal of 'free' about it at all."