This week we explore a new approach to education – a government policy which has been introduced to improve standards in the UK.
The Free School Programme is a coalition Government initiative which allows anyone, including parents, teachers and local businesses, to set up a school. These schools do not have to follow the National Curriculum, are outside of local council control but are funded by the tax-payer. Natalie O’Hare finds out what this means for the future of education.
Natalie O’Hare discusses the Free School Model
Listen hereNatalie O’Hare Discusses the Free School ModelWednesday 14th March 2012
Do you think free schools will be a success in the UK? Comment below or Tweet us. Follow @onesquarenote
Watch: An interview with the Headmaster of West London Free School
Read: Inside the mind of Toby Young
Listen: One teacher explains what it’s like to work in a free school
Q & A: Jonathan Hill on free schools
Explore: Use our interactive map to see where free schools are located
Vote: Have your say on the Free School Model
Picture Slideshow: A day in the life of the West London Free School
Social Media: Follow us on Twitter and read our blog
Related Links: External supported websites
Interview: West London Free School Headmaster, Thomas Packer
Thomas Packer explains to Natalie O’Hare where the idea to set up the West London Free School came from, and how he became the Headmaster of one of the first free schools to open in the UK.
14th March 2012
Click to view our West London Free School picture slideshow
Feature: Inside the mind of Toby Young
He may well be a shameless self-publicist whom the media loves to hate, but having failed in New York, London and Hollywood as a journalist, playwright and screenwriter, Toby Young has (despite describing himself as someone who thrives on failure) made a successful career for himself, says Natalie O’Hare.
“A wonderful guy with incredible tenacity who will not give up and will not take no for an answer.”
That’s not exactly the description most people would give celebrity journalist-turned education-campaigner Toby Young. Yet Thomas Packer, headmaster of the West London Free School which opened its doors in September last year, has only praise for Young and the work he has put into trying to make the school a success.
If for some reason you have never heard of him, Toby Young is a 48-year-old who craves media attention and has written two books about his experiences and failures as a writer. Having spent time in New York, Toby wrote and directed “How To Lose Friends and Alienate People”, a memoir and eventually a film about his failed five-year effort to make it in the U.S. as a contributing editor at Vanity Fair magazine. The film, directed by Robert B. Weide stars Simon Pegg, Kirsten Dunst and Megan Fox. He explains how different it is to live in New York compared to London: “In New York, people are nice to your face but rude behind your back. In London, people are rude to your face, but loyal about you behind your back.”
“…he spends thousands of hours on this project and for someone who is a journalist and an amateur, he knows a huge amount about education.” Thomas Packer
Nine years after returning to the UK from New York, Toby set about finding a school for his four children. His initial search proved fruitless because all the ‘good schools’ were private schools. He decided that he could do a better job himself. Coincidentally, the new coalition government was enthused about the idea of releasing schools from the dead hand of local education authority control. As the project developed, Young became more committed to encouraging children from more challenging backgrounds to apply to his school, believing free schools to be the answer to raising educational standards in Britain. Mr Packer praised his commitment to the development:“…he spends thousands of hours on this project and for someone who is a journalist and an amateur, he knows a huge amount about education.”[pullquote]Recent figures show that as many as nine children are applying for every place at the West London Free School this autumn.[/pullquote]
The free school policy is a coalition government initiative which gives groups of parents, teachers, charities and faith groups the chance to set up their own school in an area where they believe there is a need. They are outside the control of the local authority and as a result, are allowed to create their own curriculum, decide the pay and conditions for teachers and choose the length of the school day and term. The West London Free School is the one that has attracted the most controversy and media attention – probably because of the high profile of its founder. Toby believes this has been a positive help to the school: “So far publicity around the West London Free School has been a help not hindrance. We’ve had over 1,000 applications for the next 120 places.” Recent figures show that as many as nine children are applying for every place at the West London Free School this autumn.
The Hammersmith free school is one of 24 which opened for the first time in September 2011. It teaches sciences and languages, including compulsory Latin until the age of 14, to a high standard and expects strong performances from pupils but will be accessible to children of all abilities. Toby believes it is important for children to learn Latin from a young age “I think we may be the only all-ability state school in England in which Latin is mandatory for 11-14 year olds. There’s a substantial body of research evidence showing learning Latin raises attainment across all subjects.”
Despite the huge criticisms that many teaching unions have of free schools, Toby has the ability to come back with an answer. The National Union of Teachers says free schools will be socially divisive for children but Young disagrees: “By increasing choice they’ll extend opportunity.” He thinks that the education at West London Free School is a cut above the rest: “We try and teach all the children what [sic] most state schools only teach to the top sets.”
Is this simply a self-promoting stunt or is it something deeper? Is he the man the education establishment loves to hate as he is challenging their cosy consensus?
Sarah Lyons is the Principle Officer for the Employment, Conditions and Rights department for the National Union of Teachers and she has a less than favourable opinion of Mr. Young: “I watched a programme about the process of setting up the [West London Free] school and he seemed a bit of a bumbling idiot. I’m surprised he actually managed to do it because he kept missing deadlines and turning up at meetings with the [Department for Education] on the wrong day.” She also questions his motives: “I’m also surprised because I thought he would have been able to afford a private school for his children. It was a selfish thing; he wanted his children to have a private-style education and for the government to pay for it.”
“Nothing I’ve ever done has come close to producing the sense of satisfaction I feel about having started this school.” Toby Young
So a journalist who once seemed to care only about being invited to the hippest party was seduced into setting up a free school and is now being praised for the work he has put into the project over the last two years. Mr Packer admires Young’s ability to admit when he’s wrong about something: “He’ll even stand up and tell the parents ‘I’ve had a discussion and I was wrong, I’ve got it wrong.’ I think it’s lovely to have that kind of humility as well, it’s great.”
Failing has made Toby Young something of a success story but having managed to set up his own free school, it looks as though he is becoming more serious the older he gets. Better known for hanging around supermodels, and appearing in TV cookery shows, it seems the West London Free School pioneer is set on devoting all his time and energy on the project and will continue to do so: “Nothing I’ve ever done has come close to producing the sense of satisfaction I feel about having started this school.”
Toby Young’s recent release ‘How to Set Up a Free School’ is, according to the man himself, “a hilarious account of setting up the [West London Free School] and how-to guide rolled into one,” and is a Penguin Shorts e-book, price £1.99.
What do you think? Will Toby Young’s free school help improve education standards in the UK?
Comment below or Tweet us.
Click to use our interactive map which shows the free schools opening in the next two years
Listen to the Weekly Podcast
Deborah Halifax is the head of English and the SENCO (Special Education Needs Co-ordinator) at the West London Free School. She tells Natalie O’Hare why she enjoys working in a free school.
Listen here: Deborah Halifax talks about working in a free schoolWeekly Podcast – Interview with Deborah Halifax
Duration: 2 mins
Click to watch a video about the West London Free School
Q & A: Jonathan Hill on the Free School Model
It’s another new education reform which has got everyone talking, but how much do we understand about it? Jonathan Hill, or Lord Hill of Oareford as he is most formally known, is the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Schools. He tells us more about the initiative behind free schools.
What are the benefits of free schools?
We believe that the Government’s policy of free schools will provide parents with a greater choice of good schools for their children. Free schools will challenge the status quo and encourage improvement in all schools, benefiting all children, particularly in disadvantaged areas – half of the first 24 free schools opened in September 2011 are located in the 30% most deprived communities in the country.
A report claims that education standards in the US and Sweden have not improved much as a result of their free school-style models, so is it likely to work here in the UK?
There is a significant body of research in the United States that demonstrates the positive effect that new schools have on standards across the boards. In New York, Charter Schools have dramatically closed the gap between the performance of students in inner city neighbourhoods and those from the wealthiest suburbs.
How do free school applications get approved?
Free schools will have to demonstrate how they intend to ensure the highest quality of teaching and learning. Although they have the freedom to set their own curriculum, free schools should teach a balanced and broadly based curriculum. The Secretary of State will only approve the very strongest free school applications – those that he believes have the potential to make a real difference to local education provision.
Who will these schools be accountable to?
Schools should ultimately be accountable to parents and the wider community for their pupils’ achievement and their use of taxpayers’ money. These reforms will provide parents and the community with the information they need to make informed school choices. Schools must be accountable to the communities they serve; we want parents to be able to choose a high quality education appropriate for their child.
Unqualified teachers can be employed in free schools, what does this say about our education system?
Innovation, diversity and flexibility are at the heart of the Free Schools Policy and as such we want to allow free schools the flexibility to employ those people they believe are best-placed to deliver their particular educational vision. They may wish to recruit an experienced teacher or an individual from another walk of life whose wider experience could bring a different perspective to the classroom.
Critics say that free schools could break the education system and take money from maintained schools, is this likely to happen?
We want academies and free schools and local authorities to be funded fairly in a way that reflects their responsibilities. Local authorities will continue to receive funding for pupils they actually have in maintained schools, so if those pupils are more disadvantaged than those in free schools or academies, that will be reflected in the funding.
Will free schools help reduce overcrowding in maintained primary schools?
Free schools will have a part to play in allowing teachers, parents and charities to set up new schools in areas where there is a shortage of places. Free schools, however, are not designed solely to meet the need for additional school places. Responsibility for balancing the supply and demand of school places rests with the local authority, and we look to them to ensure there are sufficient places to serve the needs of their local communities.
Who will ensure that these schools are running as they should be?
Free schools will also be inspected by Ofsted under the same framework that applies to all publicly-funded schools and will be directly accountable to their pupil and parent body for the quality of education provided.
Do you have anything you would like to ask Lord Hill? Tweet us with your questions. Follow @onesquarenote
Click to vote on our free school polls
Map: Free Schools opening in 2012 & 2013
Light Blue = Free Schools opening in 2012
Dark Blue = Free Schools opening in 2013
Hover over the markers to find out the name of each school.
Click on the markers to find out more information about each school.
Click to read our Q & A feature with Jonathan Hill
Vote in our free school polls
We want to hear from you. Give us your thoughts on free schools by voting in the polls below.
Click on the questions to vote:
- Do you like the idea of free schools in the UK?
- Do you think elitism is acceptable in free schools?
- What should free schools focus their curriculum on?
Picture Slideshow: West London Free School
Take a look inside the West London Free School by playing our picture slideshow below.
We want to see the free schools in your area – Tweet us with your photographs. Follow @onesquarenote
Click to read our feature about Toby Young, the brainchild behind the West London Free School
Follow @onesquarenote for updates, stories and more
Read our Free School Blog to view more stories about these types of schools
WLFS: The website for the West London Free School
DfE: The website for the Department for Education
New Schools Network: The website for the organisation which helps people set up free schools
NUT: The website for the National Union of Teachers
NASUWT: The website for the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers