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.

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!

Middle class meddling for seeking comprehensive schooling? Guilty as charged

Pleased as I was to see my article in the Guardian on the experience of proposing a new free school, I was slightly taken aback by the ferocity of some of the negative comments it received on their website. My personal favourite has to be ‘you are dangerous….dont you have a job to do?’ I had anticipated that there would be some criticism from those who are philosophically opposed to free schools, but I had (perhaps naively) assumed that people would read my piece before passing judgement.

Nonetheless, there were some points raised that I feel are worth addressing. it also make me realise how important the local context is.

A number of people asked, quite fairly, why we had decided to try and set up a new school rather than focussing our energy on making the current provision better. Perhaps I ought to have been clearer in explaining that our group had started out with precisely this aim. We had no ambition to open a new school, we simply wanted the sort of schools that most people across the country would take for granted – mixed sex, non-denominational, non-selective education. A ‘bog standard comp’, to borrow a phrase. We do have a couple of very good schools that offer this type of education, but they are hugely oversubscribed and their catchment areas are shrinking rapidly. Those who can afford to move house to be close to the school.

The alternatives include selective schools, single sex schools and faith schools. We would (still) love any of these existing schools to change, but despite our efforts to encourage them to do so, there is no prospect of that happening. So we felt there was little choice…..send our kids to schools we did not want or open one that did. We found overwhelming support for this type of comprehensive schooling, from parents, local primary schools, the local authority and local community groups and businesses. Over 1200 parents supported our proposal, with over 90% of them coming from within 1.5 miles of the area. At present children leaving year 6 of our local primary schools are routinely scattered to all parts, traveling long distances to attend over 30 different secondary schools.

East Finchley is something of a black hole when it comes to secondary schools, which has been acknowledged by the local authority, who established a scrutiny panel to investigate the problem in response to our campaigning. With the population increasing over the coming years, this problem is expected to get even worse. The forecasts predict that Barent will need to find an additional 90 year 7 places in 2013 and a whopping 780 places in 2018. There is such a huge need for new secondary places that new provision is essential….but it also ought to be the type of schooling that parents say they want.

Some free schools have, as I understand it, opened in very different circumstances, without the support of local schools and politicians and have had a negative impact on other local schools. I do not believe that is likely in our area. Demand is just too great.

One further point that some commenters made was that it was bonkers for a group with little experience of running schools should be allowed to set one up. In response I would make two points:
Firstly, we are setting up the school, not running it. Much as parents who sit on the board of Governors in schools across the country, we will not be involved in the operations of the school on a day to say basis. Secondly, whatever people may think, I believe that parents have a good idea what’s right for their children. And we, as a group of parents, believe that comprehensive schooling is best. That hardly strikes me as being a particularly radical idea.

Perhaps we will not succeed with our aims. I am sure we will make mistakes along the way. But if wanting an old fashioned comprehensive education for my children makes me a ‘middle class meddler’ then so be it.