‘Free School’ education: concept and practicality

Stuart Leeming, Deputy High Master of The Manchester Grammar SchoolIs the misunderstood child coming of age? Two years ago, the first applications to open Free Schools were submitted to DfE amidst much suspicion, avid scrutiny and sensationalist publicity. Everyone ‘knew’ that free schools are the province of the lunatic fringe; if you want to open a school in the attic teaching your pet dogma, that’s how you do it. Local authorities were hostile and pundits were convinced the concept wouldn’t work. What a difference twenty-four months make!

Free Schools are the ultimate demand driven institutions; if you can’t demonstrate demand for a school that relates to real children with identified postcodes attached to parents who support your vision, you can’t open a Free School. If you can demonstrate that demand, then anyone with the drive and determination is able to open a school funded by the DfE. And therein lies the principle; the DfE provides the money but the school is controlled by its Board of Governors, and is free from the influence of the local authority.

As the concept of the Free School has taken root, the means by which the schools can be established has developed leading to more recognisably main stream projects often led by education professionals. Some of those are Head Teachers or parents with a particular vision; Norwich Free School is an excellent example. Groups of people that get together to go through the whole process of establishing the school themselves, eventually ending up running the school in the long term, are known as Promoters. Some are educational charities; CfBT and Ark are two examples and both are active as Sponsors. Sponsors are organisations used to setting up or running schools that will take on a project on behalf of a group of parents, say, that don’t have the resources to do the job themselves. The Sponsor will set up the school and run it in the long term but with due regard to the principles of those who commissioned them. And then there are Providers; usually organisations that understand how to set up businesses but don’t have experience running schools. Typically, a provider will take responsibility for establishing a school and then outsource the day-to-day running of the school to educational professionals.
All models work best when a group of people with the right skills have a common vision and the determination to achieve it.

New Islington Free School in Manchester is the progeny of an alliance between the visionary developer, Urban Splash; the unparalleled education pedigree of The Manchester Grammar School; the foresight and pragmatism of Manchester City council and the commitment and support of the Homes and Communities Agency. Together, this group comprise New Islington Free School Ltd; the Promoter that will establish and run the School.

Students from The Manchester Grammar School

Inner city regeneration projects over the last fifteen years have breathed life back into the heart of Manchester. A wealth of apartments of all specifications in new and refurbished buildings has attracted a vibrant residential community. Many residents are young professional people beginning their careers and wanting to live amongst the twenty-four hour buzz of the city. And when they arrived in the City, the thought of having children was probably the last thing on their minds. As the community matures, however, there are more and more families living in the city centre… and there are very few schools for their children to attend. Parents are faced with the prospect of having to move out to the suburbs and the significant change of lifestyle implied by that.

New Islington Free School will be a new school in the heart of the city. Just a short walk from the city centre, it will be adjacent to wetland, an orchard and a new canal marina. The MGS developed curriculum will offer outstanding education, drawing heavily on the International Primary Curriculum, the best elements of the English National Curriculum and the MGS commitment to a vibrant co-curriculum; sports, music, drama and adventurous activities. The academic curriculum will be enhanced by specialist support in science, mathematics and modern foreign languages.

The vision and determination of the project partners has conceived the School; it is the free school model itself that will give birth to it.

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