This article is from the February issue of Total Politics
So you want to set up a new school? There is a lot of work involved: here are a few of the points that have to be covered before the first pupils set foot through the door of your brand-new educational facility. Here's a bit of checklist:
Application form Months of detailed work outlining vision and plans on curriculum, school day, behaviour, attendance, special needs, data tracking, achievement, admissions policy.
Business plan Number crunching: staff, equipment, insurance and much more.
Capacity to deliver How many people will devote large chunks of time to making this happen?
Site for the school There’s no money for new-builds, so you need to scout the area for disused buildings ripe for refurbishment. In inner cities, this is often very time-consuming.
Children Why should parents sign up to a new school when there’s no site and no teachers? Big local advertising campaign is required, open days and numerous meetings with parents.
Start-up costs Protracted negotiations with the Department for Education. Every penny scrutinised.
Office No government funding. Beg from a local organisation.
Admissions Work with the council, but difficult to measure proximity to school gate before you’ve got a site!
Governors to recruit Search for those with enough time and expertise to devote to a new school – for free.
Project managers Someone good with checklists, timelines, Excel spreadsheets and dealing with bureaucracy.
Great teachers The most important of all decisions.
State of mind Anxious.
And that’s only about a third of the list.
It’s easier than it once was to set up a school, but not that easy. Given the right safeguards on accountability and governance, and that the projects have genuine innovation, few should oppose the setting up of free schools. They have the potential to add dynamism to the education system. But politicians should not think that it’s only free schools or academies that are willing or able to innovate. I’ve worked in three schools, all of them comprehensives, none of them academies, and all provided fresh ideas.
There’s only one good reason for putting yourself through the ordeal of starting a new school: wanting to do something different and innovative to make sure students achieve the very best.
The twin motives for setting up School 21, a 4-18 mixed school in Stratford, East London, are to narrow the achievement gap between rich and poor, and to provide an education that prepares students for the 21st century.
It’s the vision that keeps you going, the excitement of implementing the ideas we’ve gathered from our experience and best practice around the world.
School 21 believes in small, all-through schools, so that the transition for pupils at 11 years of age is minimised and literacy and skills can be tackled earlier. The debate that’s lasted 100 years between the progressives, who want education to focus on the whole child, and the traditionalists, who believe in mastering the basics, should be consigned to history. It’s a sterile, unhelpful polarisation that prevents us creating an education system that will help all children thrive in the modern world.
Reading, writing and speaking to an incredibly high standard is non-negotiable. We care about grammar, punctuation and handwriting. To some, this may make us traditionalists. If every child comes out at 18 with these three things mastered, then we will have achieved a huge amount. We’ve just read 200 CVs and cover letters and interviewed 25 candidates for an administrative post, and you see immediately the gulf between those who write fluently and those for whom sentence construction is a mystery, those who have the self-confidence to speak concisely, and those who are inarticulate.
But in others areas, such as how we teach, we’ve got to modernise, moving on from the one-teacher-talking-at-30-children model that often prevents students taking control of their own learning. We need one-to-one coaching for every child, project-based learning where students can get to grips with real-world scenarios that combine knowledge and skills. We want to introduce Harkness tables, where groups of 12 students debate issues in the round.
What matters is that students leave school with the qualities and techniques they can apply in their lives: initiative, teamwork, problem solving, critical thinking.
We believe that new knowledge and new technology have the power to transform our schools. New insights into positive psychology, neuroscience, motivation and wellbeing should be influencing not just what we teach, but how we teach. Surely it’s possible to create a school that combines the best of traditional style – rigour in the basics, politeness and good behaviour – with a new 21st-century curriculum and pedagogy, to shape a generation of students ready to take on the world.
You don’t need free schools to achieve this, but at best a new school, despite all the difficulties, can provide fresh thinking.