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Question free schools – but don’t overlook the success stories

Fay Selvan, Big Life CEO

When Big Life decided to bid to set up and run a Free School, it was not an endorsement of a radical educational policy, but a pragmatic response to challenges faced by some of the most disadvantaged parents attending our children’s centre in Longsight, Manchester.

A shortage of school places in the area had left many families with children in two or three different primary schools, or no school at all. The families who didn’t know the system for school admissions came off worst (you have to register online the January before the school year – who knew?!), along with families who recently moved into the area – often people fleeing domestic abuse or new arrivals into the country.

What we knew is that the Free School programme gave us the freedom to do what we wanted – and this meant we could work in partnership with the local authority and neighbouring schools, not compete with them.

It meant we could choose to employ qualified teachers and follow the national curriculum. In fact, it meant we could do a lot of the things that some of the other flagship free schools and academy trusts were criticised for not doing.

The other things we knew was that to be successful we needed to engage leaders who knew about education and we needed to actively involve our parents to shape the school. Soon we had found a national leader of governance to chair our Governing Body and were overwhelmed by 60 parents a time attending workshops to design the school.

Our ambition was to provide not just first class education, but support for the whole family, and a wellbeing programme that would help our children become strong resilient adults.

Five years on we have just had our first year six leave Longsight Community Primary and have developed a model that supports families with children from 0 to 11, through our children’s centre and nursery on the same site.

And in 2015 we opened our second school in Cheetham Hill – Unity Community Primary – with a full-time nursery on site and a programme of community activity. Both schools are actively involved in their local school clusters – sharing best practice and moderation.

Big Life Schools is also actively involved in the Greater Manchester School Readiness Board and leads the VCSE sub-committee. We have benchmarked our corporate services, ensuring value for money, and we don’t have any leaking of resources into for profit businesses owned by ‘related parties’.

But the real proof of success is in our impact; both of our schools have been rated ‘Good’ by Ofsted, but that doesn’t tell the full story.

Our communities have factors that will inevitably impact on our raw attainment numbers. In Unity, pupils speak 32 different languages, while that figure for Longsight sits at 22. 85% of children speak English as an additional language. As new schools there is also a high level of transience – only seven children in Longsight’s year six class were with us in Reception. Meanwhile, 43% of pupils have no previous education or interrupted education before coming to Unity.

In that context, attainment in the schools is remarkable. Across the board children in our schools make more progress than the national average. At Longsight, phonics scores are at 81%, while Unity’s are 68%. At EYFS, 66% of Longsight children and 60% of Unity children are achieving a good level of development.

At Key Stage One, Longsight has 60% of children at the expected level for reading, 50% for writing, and 57% for maths. At Unity, those numbers are 63% for reading, 53% for writing, and a stunning 80% for maths.

We don’t have this year’s Key Stage Two scores yet for Longsight, but the early indication is that we’ll be above national average in maths, and making progress across the board.

But it doesn’t stop there. In the last year:

  • Attendance at both schools was just under 96%.
  • 100% of parents in Longsight and 94% of parents at Unity believe their child is making good progress.
  • 100% of Longsight parents think the school is well-managed.
  • 100% of all our parents think that the schools offer a good range of extra-curricular activities – at Longsight, we know that 67% of children take part in after-school clubs.
  • 261 children from the local community come to our after-school and holiday play-schemes.
  • 162 adults have accessed ESOL classes based in our schools.
  • 98 local people volunteered with our 0-11 services.

The scandal of academies which fail pupils, or steal our scarce resources, is truly outrageous. But when we are designing the next education policy to replace Free Schools and academies, we need to make sure we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Getting communities and charities involved in delivering education can build strong foundations – much needed local accountability and strong governance, combined with the innovation and community know-how of the charitable sector.