Time flies…

LinkedIn tells me it’s been three years since I started working on the project management to set up the Archer Academy. It must be about four years then since a raggle-taggle group of parents first met to discuss how we could get our local schools and our local authority to address a chronic shortage of local comprehensive education.

We didn’t know each other, knew little about the finer workings of the education system and had no desire or intention of setting up a school.

Our hand was somewhat forced by the realisation that: a) no one was willing or able to give us what we wanted and b) that there was huge local support for a local school for local children.

We became reluctant free schoolers and the Archer Academy was born.

the archer academy

We’ve come a long way in a short space of time and it’s incredible to think that the school has become a feature of local life in East Finchley so quickly. It’s just there. Part of our community landscape.

We’ve protected a community asset from development – ensuring that it will benefit local people in perpetuity rather than being turned into houses or flats. Creating fantastic new sport and recreation facilities that in just a few weeks local people will be able to use. I can’t wait for my first game of football on our new pitch!the Archer

And my eldest child will start school in September too – along with 149 other children from our local primary schools.

Regardless of controversy and debate about free schools – and I remain sceptical about the policy overall – I am proud of what we have achieved in establishing the Archer Academy. I have no doubt that is has helped to address unmet need in local educational provision that thousands of children will benefit from over the years ahead. But more than that, it has strengthened our community and generated significant social value.

Connections have been made within the community – bridging and bonding – which did not exist before. High quality sport and leisure facilities have been created which are open for community use outside of school hours and in numerous ways the school community – our students, parents, staff and governors – are contributing to local community life. Whether it’s collecting clothes for local refugees, or performing at the East Finchley Festival. We are working in partnership with numerous local businesses, charities and community groups – special mentions here for the ever wonderful GLH and Dan & De Carlo’s – to, in the words of D&D’s Danny Gates “…create one big family within the local community.”

local schools for local kids

Three years. It feels like a lifetime. Time flies…

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From dream to reality

Yesterday the Governors of the Archer Academy held our last meeting of the academic year at our new premises in Stanley Road. It was a poignant moment to tour the fantastic new site and see the wonderful teaching spaces and the sports facilities that have replaced the disused playing fields and warehouse stores that were there before.

It was amazing to remember that this time three years ago the Department for Education had just given us approval to proceed to opening. We had no staff, no site and no students – just a vision and a firm belief that a local school for local children would benefit the entire community.

Now we have close to 100 staff, not one but two fabulous sites and an Ofsted report that recognised the excellent progress we have made and the solid foundations we have for the future.

We’ve been open less than two years but it feels, from my point of view at least, that the school has already become firmly established in the fabric of the local community. And when our Stanley Road site opens its doors in September to our students and to the local community I have no doubt that it will embed the Archer further still into the heart of East Finchley.

Given that one of tenets of our founding vision is based on engaging with our community – contributing to creating and sustaining an inclusive, thriving local area – this is extremely important to me and the other governors. Stanley Road is a wonderful example of how the school can add to the local area through the provision of new sports and leisure facilities. A derelict piece of land – what had once been a playing field but frequented solely by dog walkers in recent years – was transformed into an all-weather sports pitch, a sports hall with an climbing wall (fully accessible to enable disabled people to use it), rehearsal space, recording studio and a range of other community facilities. These will be available to the local community outside of school hours. Judging by the interest from local sports clubs and community groups there should be no shortage of local use.

The site is protected for community use in perpetuity – and this is something we have written into the agreements with the council and Sport England (as part of the site was – at least in theory – designated playing fields).

Looking at the architect’s impressions and ‘fly-through’ of the building which were produced around two years ago…

…it’s incredible to now be able to work around the building and the grounds and see it finished.

The dream has become a reality.

Free School with 17 pupils highlights DfE shortcomings

News emerged on Friday that a new free school in Brixton has opened with just 17 of the 120 pupils they planned to take. The Trinity Academy has opened its doors to year 7 (11 year olds) on a site that the Department for Education purchased for £18m but the planned admissions have not materialised. Clearly the school has satisfied DfE that it will be viable in the long term, but the affair lends more weight to criticism of the government’s free schools programme.

I can see free schools as potential options where local provision is inadequate – whether that’s due to the poor quality of available provision or because of a lack of places. And there are certainly parts of the country which have schools that are performing poorly or too few places (or too few places in the sort of schools that parents want). Where provision is good and places are available in line with parental demand there should be no grounds for justifying huge amounts of public money on opening new schools. That is precisely what free school critics have argued, and with some justification.

The situation in Lambeth is worth looking at. In terms of performance, Lambeth’s schools achieved well above national averages in the proportion of pupils making expected progress in English and maths and in GCSE results.

 % of pupils making expected progress % of pupils achieving 5+ A*-C GCSEs % achieving A*-C in English and maths GCSE
English Maths 2013
England – state funded schools only 70.4% 70.8% 60.6% 61.3%
Lambeth 76.6% 78.8% 65.9% 67.2%

 

Of the 14 mainstream secondary schools in Lambeth with Ofsted inspection reports available, four are rated ‘outstanding’, eight ‘good’ and two are rated ‘satisfactory’. [Under the new Ofsted inspection framework ‘satisfactory’ has been replaced by ‘requires improvement’, but the assessments in Lambeth were carried out under the old regime].

 

With 85% of state-funded secondary schools rated good or better, Lambeth’s figures compare well with national figures, which, before the introduction of the new Ofsted framework was 79% receiving the top two ratings. Whilst a borough-wide perspective can mask local options to parents, it’s hard to suggest that local provision is inadequate.

 

The situation is compounded by the fact that figures from Lambeth Council, where the school is located, show that there is a surplus of secondary school places in the Borough. Figures suggest the Borough will have a surplus of 226 secondary school places this year.

So, both in terms of available places and the quality of provision, there appears to be no need for a free school to open in the area. The lack of take up by parents appears to back this up.

Which begs the question, why was this application to open a new free school ever allowed to progress?

DfE is supposed to ensure that free school applications can evidence sufficient demand for their proposals. At the Archer Academy, we had over 1,100 local parents expressing interest in sending their children to our school and we received 350 applications in our first year (for 150 places). Trinity Academy apparently received 90 applications for 120 places. This information would have been known back in December 2013 and DfE should have moved quickly to avoid this situation from arising. Having a small number of spare places is one thing, but to have 85% of places untaken is unacceptable.

We’ve had far too many of these free school fiascos. Until DfE introduces sufficient checks to ensure situations like this are not allowed to happen, it will be hard to argue that free schools are a credible option for addressing a lack of local provision.

Free schools are not a panacea to all our educational challenges and the sooner DfE wakes up to this, the better.

 

[1] http://www.education.gov.uk/cgi-bin/schools/performance/group.pl?qtype=LA&no=208&superview=sec

Does Labour’s response to Al-Madinah offers signs of an education policy?

Newly appointed Shadow Education Secretary, Tristram Hunt, had a first opportunity to get his teeth into his new brief, with the furore about the Al-Madinah free school’s damning Ofsted inspection. So it was interesting to hear how he responded and whether the reported shift in policy from his predecessor, Stephen Twigg, was in evidence.

Twigg had previously said he would stop any new free schools being opened, but would support parent-led academies (whatever they are). I listened closely to Hunt being interviewed about the Al-Madinah inspection to see if there were any shifts in policy, however subtle. What Hunt seemed to be saying was that free schools might be okay, if they were de-politicised and the “ideology removed” from them. He reaffirmed what Stephen Twigg had said about wanting to support parent-led academies and supporting parents who wanted to get more involved in their children’s schools. He then went on to say that what this meant in practice really boiled down to three fundamental concerns about free schools:

1)      That they should only be set up in areas of demand

2)      That they should only employ qualified teachers

3)      They must be transparent and accountable, particularly in relation to their finances.

I have to say I agree with him on all three points and my own experience with the Archer Academy has followed all of these principles.

That free schools (or indeed any school) should only open in areas where we need them, seems quite obvious, but it does get complicated when you start to unpick it. We do have a massive shortage of school places, so a great many areas are in need. But it also reflects the impossible job of local authorities, who have a statutory duty to provide education for children, but find they have diminishing  control and influence over the schools in their area. This applies to all academies, not just free schools. Ideologically the free schools programme is currently incompatible with local authorities coordinating place management and this is something that must be addressed. But there is also a question over what happens in areas where they are in need of excellent schools, but they have poor performing schools. Is that demand? Clearly parents in those areas could (and should) be demanding more. How can poorly performing academies be improved when they are accountable only to the Secretary of State? There are some issues to work through here.

Part of the solution lies in point 3 – the accountability of schools. Much could, and should, be done to strengthen the accountability of schools to their local communities. This is partly about financial transparency, but it is also about ethos and culture and the extent to which the school and its leadership team see themselves as being accountable to the community. It is embedded deeply into the DNA of the Archer Academy, but only because we chose to make it that way. There is currently very little required of academies to be accountable to parents and the wider community and this must be addressed.

As someone who is very interested in open data and its potential to strengthen accountability, I am keen to see how our school can play a leading role in opening up our data as far as possible. I think this helps to give parents information about the school that they can use to make more informed decisions and how the governors to account. It also enables third-party developers to find new uses of the data – providing new insights from mashing-up, interrogating and visualising our data. It’s perhaps a bit of an unknown quantity, but my work with Data Unity has given me confidence that there is value in opening up data.

As (exempt) charities, academies receiving considerable tax benefits. The social contract that charitable status is based on, is that in return for this privilege, there must be some public benefit. Part of the deal involves being accountable to beneficiaries – which in the case of schools is obviously pupils (and their parents). Financial accountability is a key part of this.

How can we expect families to be able to hold schools to account if they do not have access to information on which to base decisions and inform opinions?

I not aware of many schools that are embracing open data – but I would be very keen to hear of any examples – but I think it is an exciting agenda with many opportunities to be explored.

Al-Madinah inadequacies highlight wider weaknesses

The Ofsted report into the Al-Madinah school in Derby is damning. Extremely damning. Inspectors highlighted a catalogue of shortcomings that have resulted in the school being taken into special measures. Every single category that Ofsted examine was rated ‘inadequate’ and the school, which only opened last year, was described as ‘dysfunctional’. This is not good. Not good for the Al-Madinah Educational Trust who run the school, not good for Michael Gove and his flagship free schools programme and most of all not good for the children who go there.

Of particular interest (and concern) to me, as a founder of another free school that opened a year later, the report singled out the weaknesses and ineffectiveness of the school’s governing body.

Whilst I do not believe that this incident proves one way or another whether free schools are a good or a bad idea, it does highlight inadequacies of the current process. I find it simply incomprehensible that a free school applicant’s governing body can be so obviously lacking and still pass through the process in being allowed to open. Having been through the process myself, I do not know how this could have gone unnoticed. Whilst I would not necessarily say that the interrogation of governor capabilities was as rigorous as I had expected it to be, I still wonder how they could have actually managed to get the school opened without being more competent.

It may have something to do with who is actually doing the setting up. In our experience, as a group of parents, we had not organisational backing or resources to draw on. We had to do everything ourselves. This did make it hard and it could well mean that areas with less resources and capabilities are not able to establish their own schools. But the upside, I suppose, is that it meant we had to be sufficiently competent and capable to set up a school – which stood us in good stead to actually oversee the running of the school. [Quick health-warning: we haven’t had our first Ofsted inspection…so we’ll see what happens then! And if I have to eat humble pie, I will happily do so!]

However, I have to say that from my experience of governance in other schools (maintained and academies), I wonder whether the standard of governance is sufficiently high. I have attended a number of training sessions for governors and been deeply unimpressed by the level of knowledge and expertise among many school governors. They were unaware of the basic fundamentals of good governance and the ‘Nolan principles’ of public office. The did not understand how they should hold their headteacher and senior leadership team to account and provide a balance of support and challenge.

My (far greater) experience of charity governance is of a generally higher standard, with trustees on boards I have worked with and sat on, overall far better informed. I am aware that this is by no means a definitive sample or scientific survey. But it does make me wonder whether we have to address the school governance – not just in free schools but across the board.

I believe this incident highlights weaknesses in the free school process but also issues with governance more widely. It does not, to me, demonstrate that free schools are right, or wrong. But rather that we need to support parents and local people who are prepared to put themselves forward to act in the interests of their community, so that they can fulfil their role adequately and effectively.

9th September 2013…the Archer Academy is now open!

We don’t get too many opportunities in our lives to feel we have made a really meaningful difference; a difference that will go on beyond our lifetime, to affect the lives of people who have not yet even been born yet.  But it is my genuine hope that Monday 9th September 2013 turns out to be one of those days for me and my co-founders of the Archer Academyarcher logo

Today, the school that less than two years ago did not even exist even in our dreams, opened its doors to 150 eleven year old pupils that form our inaugural intake. It was the culmination of a huge adventure of the reluctant free-schoolers and, what I hope will be a defining moment in our community. East Finchley and the surrounding area have long suffered with a lack of comprehensive, non-denominational school provision and the Archer Academy set out to address that need. Today and for years to come, there is a place for our children to go to that we hope (and mean to make sure of!) will deliver the three pillars of our vision – realising potential, inspiring creativity and engaging with our community.

archer banner
It’s been an amazing experience helping to set the school up – from agreeing to submit a proposal, to going through the application process, right through the set-up phase to the day of opening. I’ve formed what I know will be lifelong friendships and connections within my community, I’ve laughed so hard I’ve had tears in my eyes and pain in my stomach. I’ve pushed my family to the limits with late nights, weekends and constant distraction of things to do. In fact I doubt the school could have been established without considerable understanding of my co-founders’ families – the unsung heroes of our adventure. I’ve assembled unicycles, learnt more about education than I ever did at school, defended free schools (or at least our version of them) and administered admissions for an entire year. I learnt a great deal, I had fun and I worked damn hard…harder than I have ever had to work before and today made it all worth it.We have now handed over the responsibility for running the school to our fantastic headteacher and his outstanding team of teachers and support staff and we will revert to a more usual strategic role of a governor providing a blend of support and challenge. And of course, it’s all very well setting up a school, but now we need to ensure that it lives up to our high expectations.

In 100 years’ time myself and the other founders will be long gone and forgotten, but I hope that the Archer Academy will still be serving the children, parents and the community of East Finchley and the surrounding area. I hope that those responsible for the school continue to ask themselves the question that has guided our journey in establishing the Archer Academy – ‘Just how good can our school be?’

But today, I’m just going to sit back, feel proud and enjoy the sense of achievement.

Toby

PS please forgive the somewhat self-indulgent and sentimental nature of this post…it’s not every day you open a school!

When is a free school not a free school? When it’s a parent academy

Stephen Twigg’s speech this week was long overdue. Labour have been woefully quiet on education policy, despite Michael Gove’s high profile and contentious policy agenda. It was a first chance to hear how Labour plans to position itself on education at the next election and, though lots of questions remain, there were some interesting ideas to pick through.

Image

Edge Foundation photo used under creative commons

One of the problems that Labour has in developing its education policy is that it was them who instigated the academies programme, which Michael Gove’s free schools has extended. And whilst they may want to rein in any attempts to further commercialise our education system, they cannot easily undo the process that has led to over 3,000 academies operating in England.

I must admit to raising an eyebrow at the announcement Labour would call a halt to the free schools programme. I hadn’t anticipated this. But it’s not quite as it would appear, as although there would be no new free schools, ‘parent academies’ would be introduced. As one of the founders of a parent-led free school, I don’t really see the distinction – something that junior education Minister Elizabeth Truss was keen to point out. I can see that free schools as a ‘brand’ may be considered toxic to Labour – and to the teaching unions – but are parent academies really so different?

I think the objective – though one you won’t read in Stephen Twigg’s speech – is to turn the tap off on the growing number of commercial education providers that are establishing free schools and academy chains. Whilst Labour may find it hard to argue against parents having control over their children’s education, they may be more concerned by the dominance of the private sector within the state education system. There seems to be a silent battle starting over the introduction of profit-making into schools – with Gove apparently keen and Labour (and the unions) lining up against it….but with little explicit reference to it (yet).

Stephen Twigg was keen to emphasise the point that maintained schools should be afforded the same freedoms as academies without having to convert:

“So if a freedom is afforded to an academy and it drives up standards, that freedom should be available to all schools.”

However the key point here, in my view, is whether or not the innovation drives up standards or not. The evidence base on free schools’ performance is clearly still in its infancy and whilst there is more data on academies, there’s still relatively little. Can we be certain which innovations are driving up standards? Introducing freedoms that do little or nothing to improve standards – and may actually have an adverse effect – is not the answer…but I worry that such subtleties will be lost in implementation.

The other area of Twigg’s speech that I found interesting was the reference to local oversight and the news that David Blunkett will head up a review looking at this. A lack of local collaboration, coordination and accountability is a potential area of weakness in the current system. Whilst there is nothing to prevent free schools from being collaborative, transparent and accountable – as we have tried to show with the Archer Academy – it is currently very much down to the ethos and vision of free school founders. I believe that more could be done to embed a culture of collaboration and greater accountability to parents and the community within schools – whether maintained schools or academies. I hope that both Labour and the Conservatives will look seriously at ways to empower parents and teachers to deliver improved outcomes for pupils and communities. The potential benefits of excellent schools are not limited simply to academic attainment, or even the realisation of wider outcomes for pupils’ development. The benefits can extend to the whole community and can deliver tangible social, economic and environmental impact.

Regardless of whether we get more free schools or parent academies after the next general election, my overriding hope is that our education policy supports parents to play a meaningful role in schools in their communities.