Free schools: Are they a recipe for success or disaster?

Free schools such as The Discovery School in Newcastle - which welcomed its first pupils in September - are aiming to bridge the skills gap

Discovery School on Blandford Street, Newcastle
Discovery School on Blandford Street, Newcastle

A Conservative government will open hundreds of new free schools across England by 2020 under a major expansion of the policy, but the ambitious move is not without its critics, as Ruth Lognonne discovered.

A report published last month said that free schools are raising standards for other pupils across the local community, especially in some of the poorest performing schools, as well as for the pupils who attend them.

Free Schools are brand new schools, set up by groups of parents, or charities, or teachers, or bodies, including other schools.

Prime minister David Cameron boasted free schools are twice as likely to be judged “outstanding” as other schools inspected at the same time.

Wendy Allen outside the Discovery School
Wendy Allen outside the Discovery School

However the National Union of Teachers did not accept the findings of the report and said the conclusions were “not supported by the ‘evidence’”.

“The samples on which the authors base their recommendations are tiny as they admit in the report and can in no way be considered statistically robust,” said Kevin Courtney, the NUT’s deputy general secretary.

Mr Cameron praised the impact free schools on children’s education across the country and pledged to expand the programme if re-elected to create 270,000 new places.

“If you vote Conservative, you will see the continuation of the Free Schools programme at the rate you’ve seen in the last three years,” the prime minister said.

He added: “Remember – we’re the only party that is committed to this. The only party that’s opening up the education system so we can get more good places for your children.

Discovery School, Blandford Street, Newcastle
Discovery School, Blandford Street, Newcastle

“And isn’t that what every parent wants – a great education for their child? You deserve the security of knowing you child is getting just that. And with the Conservatives you should expect nothing less.”

Labour, which supports allowing the creation of “parent-led academies” – a similar concept to free schools – criticised the coalition’s handling of the project.

Tristram Hunt, the shadow education secretary, said a third of all free schools were found to be under-performing.

“Britain only succeeds when we use the talents of all young people. But on David Cameron’s watch, we’ve seen a widening of the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers,” Mr Hunt said.

Discovery School, Blandford Street, Newcastle
Discovery School, Blandford Street, Newcastle

He added: “Labour has a better plan. We will target investment at areas in need of new places, allowing us to cap class sizes for five, six and seven year olds at 30 pupils or less.”

They’ve only been going for a couple of years at most, but it has been a mixed landscape for free schools in the North East.

In January, the government pulled the plug on funding for Durham Free School after Ofsted rated it inadequate.

The school submitted an improvement plan but this was rejected and education secretary Nicky Morgan ordered it to close before Easter.

In January, the government pulled the plug on funding for Durham Free School after Ofsted rated it inadequate.

The school submitted an improvement plan but this was rejected and Education Secretary Nicky Morgan ordered it to close before Easter.

The engineering labs at the Discovery School
The engineering labs at the Discovery School

Ofsted also said the school’s curriculum was failing to help students understand British values.

Opened in 2013, the school is the third free school to close since they were unveiled in 2010.

Controversy followed at the beginning of the year, when Grindon Hall Christian School, in Sunderland, was placed in special measures by Ofsted inspectors.

They said the school, in Nookside, was inadequate and needed to urgently improve the quality and impact of leaders.

Following a monitoring visit in February, the inspectors said although there had been changes made, the school’s action plan is not fit for purpose.

Despite this, free schools across the region are defending the way they deliver education and the success of their pupils.

Abigail Ryan with a printed circuit she cut out
Abigail Ryan with a printed circuit she cut out

The Discovery School, in Newcastle, which welcomed its first pupils in September, is aiming to help bridge the North East skills gap.

The £9m school – a specialist science, technology, engineering and maths college for 14 to 19-year-olds - is packed with more than £1 million of engineering and science equipment.

The school has an elongated day from 8.30am to 4.30pm, with an extra hour of sport or other activities to 5.30pm, three nights a week.

It welcomes pupils from 50 schools and seven local authorities across the region.

At GCSE the pupils study eight subjects – English, maths, the three sciences and engineering, plus two others – cutting down on other areas of the curriculum to focus in more detail on the STEM subjects.

Principal Wendy Allen said both staff and pupils are engaged because they’re in their dream environment.

Discovery School Principal Wendy Allen
Discovery School Principal Wendy Allen

“To me it’s just common sense,” she said. “It’s not wacky or innovative, it’s just good practice. We’re taking traditional qualifications and allowing students to apply that knowledge in practical terms like schools used to do.

“We’re not taking pupils in droves from any one school – it’s 50 different schools, with one person from here and two from there, who want to study STEM subjects.

“Here, we study two or three subjects in a day so it sticks in student’s minds.

“We’ve got 127 students currently and we have the capacity to take 700 but I don’t want to take 700. We would like to grow our numbers to around 500 over the next three or four years.

“Applications are going really well and our sixth form has taken off significantly. The students see there is a skills gap facing the country and they don’t necessarily see university as a preparation for employment.

Discovery School, Blandford Street, Newcastle
Discovery School, Blandford Street, Newcastle

“We invite major employers including Nissan, Ryder Architecture and Cundall engineers into school to work with the students on projects so that when they leave they can secure employment with these firms and hit the ground running.

“We are responding to every politician and business leader’s call; for a more work-ready young person who is skilled in the areas that are important to the economy’s needs.”

Case study

Charlotte Nunn-Woods, 15, from Wideopen, is studying for a GCSE in engineering at Discovery School.

The teenager said: “It’s not just the engineering option that interests me but also the computer science qualification.

“I find these subjects interesting and more useful to me in my chosen career.

“Working with businesses on a regular basis gives us a good understanding of what’s expected of us.”

Shannon McGarry, 14, from Fenham, says engineering is her favourite subject at Discovery School.

“I like anything to do with maths and it’s hands-on,” she said. “I’m a practical person and this school really plays to my strengths.

“I’m looking at a career in robotics after I leave university and I’m getting a good grounding here.

“I much prefer being here to my old school. All of us have similar interests and we’re all here for the same purpose.

“We all get stuck in at school because we all want to be here.

“The teachers are all very encouraging of girls getting into engineering which I think is important because I want to get away from the boys-only engineering stereotype.”

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