Ed Vainker always fancied the idea of “taking the best bits of education” and starting his own school. So when the coalition government launched its free schools programme in 2010 – allowing parents, teachers and other members of the community to set them up – he joined forces with geography teacher Rebecca Cramer and did just that.
Influenced primarily by the American charter schools – which receive public funding but are not constrained by government-sanctioned curriculum or standards – the pair founded the Reach academy in Feltham, south-west London, a four-18 school with daily English and maths classes for all pupils, lessons in philosophy and logic, and an extended school day.
“Coming to work every day with people with a can-do attitude, people who believe that anything is possible and have a shared vision about what they want to achieve is a real pleasure,” says Vainker, a former history teacher who is now principal of the school.
Why opt to establish a free school, given the controversy surrounding their standards, employment practices and the impact on other local schools? Although the Department for Education says many free schools have been founded by teachers, it cannot give precise figures.
Overall, there are now 174 free schools in England – with a further 100 expected to open in September 2014. But Ofsted inspections of the first 24, published in August, showed that six were rated as “requiring improvement” or “inadequate”. And with controversy over the Al-Madinah school in Derby, labelled “dysfunctional” by Ofsted, teachers who have set up their own schools could find themselves under scrutiny.
Free schools have come under fire for paying vastly over-inflated salaries, imposing religious dogma on children and employing unqualified teachers. Last month, Annaliese Briggs, the head of the Pimlico free school in central London, who had been criticised for having no teaching experience, stood down.
And, last week, a report by the Education Funding Agency (EFA) – the Department for Education’s accounting watchdog – uncovered sustained financial mismanagement at the Kings Science academy in Bradford. The investigation found that £76,933 of funds had not been used for their budgeted purposes by the school, including £10,000 in bogus claims for property rental.
But most teachers who have established free schools would argue that their institutions are quite different. Many hire qualified teachers, pay in line with national pay scales and broadly follow the national curriculum.
Free schools have also often given the teachers who founded them greater job satisfaction. Tania Sidney-Roberts, who set up the Free School Norwich last year, thinks starting the primary school, which opened last September, has helped her achieve her mission to create a “nicer place for teachers to work” – primarily by reducing paperwork – and help to support working parents by opening longer (apart from bank holidays and a week at Christmas, the school – which has 168 pupils – is open six days a week, all year round).
She says: “The schools I had worked in over the years, certainly in Norfolk, were on the receiving end of an endless drip-feed of whole-school strategies imposed by local authorities – many of which were very time-consuming and ineffective.”
Staff work longer school days than teachers elsewhere (the school is open from 8.15am until 5.45pm), but have saved time by ditching government school-improvement and -assessment strategies in favour of their own systems, which are “much less hassle to complete”.
To compensate for the long hours, the school year is divided into six terms, with a two-week break between each and four weeks over the summer, which gives teachers the chance “to recharge their batteries” while support staff run holiday clubs to cover the vacations.
And there are no “nasty long corridors with echoey floors”, says Sidney-Roberts. The school is decorated like a home, with carpets, curtains, cushions and soft lighting. Even the children have their own “living room” and staff are known by their first names. “I have worked in several schools where staff are almost expected to be like clones and not really have a personality…but here there is a much more informal, homely, relaxed feel.”
While there are no soft furnishings at the Reach academy (which is, temporarily, located in a former jobcentre while a new building is being constructed), pupils are also on first-name terms with staff – the idea being that “everyone is equal and no one feels better than anyone else”, says year 8 student Ryan.
Underpinning everything the school does is the belief that every child has the potential to achieve the highest grades and go to a top university regardless of their background or prior attainment. Anyone who doesn’t subscribe to that view doesn’t make it past a first interview – something that attracted English teacher Beck Owen.
She says: “I was so vehemently opposed to what we were trying to do in my old school – and what all schools all over the country are doing – getting children C grades and thinking that was an acceptable target. We have to believe that if we work hard and they [the students] work hard that we can do it – because otherwise there is no way it can happen.”
But it does mean a lot of work. Teachers are expected to eat lunch with the children every day to help pupils develop social skills, and run extra-curricular clubs and booster classes – outside the school day – for children who need extra help. And all teachers have mobile phones on which parents can contact them up to 8pm on weekday evenings.
Owen says she regularly puts in 14-hour days and works at the weekend. But in a small school (the Reach academy has just 217 students) where teachers get a say in its day-to-day running – and are appreciated – it is worth it.
“There is a sort of culture of joy here and they are very good at saying ‘we appreciate you’. That might be sending you an email to say ‘that was amazing’ after observing your lesson or leaving a Post-it note in your room that says ‘I really like the way you did this’. It’s those little things that constantly let you know that what you are doing is valued and is changing lives.”
And there are other, more tangible benefits. The super teacher scheme encourages pupils to nominate staff who go the extra mile to win cinema or restaurant vouchers, and teachers can take some of their holiday during term time in a exchange for a week working at the Reach Academy’s summer school. They also get performance-related pay and bonuses – something Owen admits was a big draw.
“In most school systems, you become a great teacher and then you’re taken out of the classroom to do other stuff – it doesn’t really make sense. My bonus last year was very strongly linked to how well I’d done in the classroom, so it feels like you’re actually being rewarded for your hard work.”
But it’s not all about “gimmicks” says Peter Hyman, the teacher (and former adviser to Tony Blair) who founded School 21 – a four-18 school in Stratford, east London, which opened last year. Here the key is simply a “shared vision”, he says. “The people I’ve employed are not ‘yes’ people. They’re creative, free-thinking, opinionated people who want be in an environment where there is no hierarchy of ideas, where everyone gets listened to and is involved in shaping the direction of the school.”
Richard Booth, founder of the Reach free school in Rickmansworth in Hertfordshire, which opened last month, agrees. He has employed a team of teachers who are “excited about having a say in the development of their subject”.
Booth and Hyman have introduced unorthodox subjects into the curriculum – “developing kindness and character” at School 21, and “community common room” (essentially about volunteering) at the Reach free school.
They are aware that they are under the same pressures to achieve as every other school. “Although they [the teachers] can tailor the curriculum in the way they see fit, they obviously have to keep their eye on the fact that in five years’ time our first GCSE results will come out and we will be judged on that,” says Booth. But as free schools grow in size – most only have one or two year groups so far – maintaining their unique ethos could become more of a challenge, admits Hyman.
“In a small school with a flat structure, all teachers can be involved in shaping the direction of the school, but when you scale that up, there is always the worry that some things could get knocked out of shape.”
And not everyone is convinced that schools started by teachers are offering anything unique. “The kinds of things people are calling ‘innovative’ about these schools – different term times, longer school days, a wider range of subjects – much of it is possible for local authority schools, and certainly all of it for academies,” says Jeremy Rowe, head of Sir John Leman high school in Beccles, Suffolk. “So they might be good ideas, but ultimately they’re ideas that any teacher, working in any school, might have.”
Vainker is confident that the Reach academy’s approach is working – and says he has the results to prove it. Around 75% of pupils are reading at Sats level 1b at the end of reception (the expected level for pupils at the end of year 1) and most year 7 pupils are working at level 5 – that of a typical 13-year-old. He says: “Our children are the best critics of what we’re doing and as one child said to me recently ‘the hours are long, but the days are short’. That said it all really.”