Why we're setting up free schools
From tackling social deprivation to providing a faith-based ethos, two free school pioneers describe their hopes for the government's flagship education policy
8 September 2010:
Parents have one opportunity to educate their child. It is a precious time, and every parent's dream to send their child to an outstanding school. I come from a working class background, and my father sweated overtime as a bus driver to send me to an independent school because great teachers were not at the time able to set up a school in a socially deprived neighborhood and deliver great educational outcomes. In my generation, parents who lived in socially deprived neighbourhoods often cried on the doorstep of their local authority for a good school for their child. I've been working in inner-city schools for the last 13-14 years, and children and parents have continued to face similar challenges. But now things look like they might start to change.
We've just received the good news that King's Science Academy in Bradford, which I am involved in setting up, will be supported by the Department for Education to open in September 2011 – one of 16 free schools approved by the government. Whether we will open or not will depend on successfully developing a business case. Nevertheless, we are on a more assured road map and that's what matters.
Our plans for King's have been in a draft stage for many years, and even though we have incredible community support the challenge of opening an academy in an inner-city area has been difficult. Labour walked with the academies policy cautiously and were always hesitant to give any opportunity or freedom for excellent school leaders and teachers to open schools. The schools on offer to these parents often have serious behavior and discipline issues, below national average attainment, poor levels of parental engagement, and ineffective leadership teams. Many teachers I know wouldn't dream of sending their own children there, and for any parent this is the ultimate litmus test.
Solutions you did see for parents living in socially deprived neighborhoods were restricted to a strategy of being locked into their catchment areas until the failing schools serving them were either transformed into academies, received more money and support as a National Challenge school, invited various advisers in, or formed a trust school with partners who don't necessarily know what was needed.
Sajid Hussain: Free schools like ours can give students
in socially deprived areas a chance for a great
And while all this is going on, parents who live or can afford to buy a house in the more affluent suburbs are happily sending their children to better schools and universities; and outstanding teachers in poor management structures are continuously frustrated at the lack of opportunity to do something different, constrained by the systems around them. It's no surprise that our nation's record for social mobility is an extremely poor one.
For all the critics of the free school policy, they have to admit that this policy will now give freedom to outstanding school leaders and teachers to set up new schools in socially deprived areas, with quality frameworks and strategies in place from the very outset. Our school will be in the city ward area of Bradford West, one of the most deprived areas of England. The attainment is low, and there are all sorts of social, cultural and economic issues. Free schools can target places like this, and create opportunities for children and young people so that they can have an excellent education whatever their background.
Gopinder Kaur Sagoo: We want to share our approach to
education with children from all religious backgrounds –
As well as being a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham, I'm a parent and volunteer with the Nishkam Education Trust, one of the first of 16 organisations to receive state funding for free schools. It's been nine years now since I moved from London to Handsworth, Birmingham. I often have to explain to others that, far from vegetating in the grey inner city, I've found myself at the heart of a community – Sikh at its core, working actively with non-Sikh partners – which has changed the local landscape, demonstrating an unusual capacity for contributing to local life and shared thinking about what it takes to flourish individually, as families and communities, in societies big and small.
Nishkam Education is led by a cooperative of Sikh parents and educators located in inner-city Birmingham. For many years we have been exploring educational concepts and practices embedded in our own faith and culture, with its long history of interfaith and intercultural engagement, as well as knowledge passed down through other world traditions. We also draw guidance and inspiration from more formally recognised educational philosophies and schools of thought, along with professionally agreed national frameworks and guidance. This has prompted a readiness to work together with Sikh and non-Sikh educators, researchers and academics to articulate, establish and share our approach. And as the plan for our school takes shape, we're looking forward to sharing that approach with local children from all religious backgrounds – and none.
Our work rests on a conviction that in order to bring about wider change in the world, one must first "become" the change, transforming oneself and one's immediate community and environment. This is how we were able to muster the time and energy to push ahead with our free school application, while also raising money for the purchase of the land needed to accommodate the school. We benefited from the current atmosphere that encourages parents, teachers and communities to play a more proactive role in conceiving and delivering education. It's clear that there's a great deal of hard work still to be done, but the success of the application has galvanised us even further.