Wednesday, August 6, 2014
Free schools endured a rocky road as they were established in Suffolk’s educational system.
There were concerns over start-up costs, a perceived lack of need and in some cases pupil numbers were below capacity.
IES Breckland in Brandon was placed into special measures, which didn’t help the cause, although Ofsted has since said it is making improvements.
However, the county’s oldest free school is starting to show signs of spawning into a star student.
The Stour Valley Community School in Clare was among the country’s first batch of 24 free schools when it opened in September 2011 – remaining state-funded but independent of the local education authority.
Its conception came in the fallout of the familiar war being waged against the closure of middle schools across Suffolk.
Having fought unsuccessfully to save Clare Middle School, concerned parents found a reprieve in the form of Clare town councillor Keith Haisman, whose tentative scribbles on a sheet of paper slowly blossomed into a fully fledged, £6million secondary school.
The initial uptake of Mr Haisman’s bold venture was cautious – its current crop of Years 11s, the first in the school’s history to complete their GCSEs, is made up of only 37 students.
But this year’s complete rollcall stands at 465 for the 575-capacity Stour Valley, while it was oversubscribed with children looking to start there in September.
Its first-ever Ofsted inspection last year saw it rated as “good with outstanding features”, with particular praise for the school’s leadership and students’ behaviour.
“The opportunity to create, in my view, the perfect secondary school, from scratch, was something I couldn’t miss,” said the school’s headteacher Christine Inchley,
“Everyone in education knows how it should be, but you so rarely get the chance to create it from the bottom up. That’s the opportunity I had here, so I had to grasp it.
“I think I’ve got the best team of staff I’ve worked with throughout my entire career – there isn’t one member of staff who doesn’t believe in the message of Stour Valley.”
A tour through the school’s pristine halls offers a sense of this enthusiasm.
An overwhelming number of teachers are young, bubbly and brimming with energy; stories of early starts and late finishes are banded around as badges of honour, while every lesson is conducted with a literal “open door” policy, with passersby encouraged to poke their nose in and observe any and every lesson.
While Mrs Inchley acknowledges the school’s academic results are not outstanding, with the forthcoming GCSE results set to be severely skewed by any rogue results given the year group’s low pupil numbers, none of its leavers fall into the dreaded NEETs category – not in education, employment or training.
There seem to be further benefits from having the likes of former banker Mr Haisman and town council vice-chairman Derek Blake involved so heavily in the school’s inception.
They were able to find someone to cut the grass on the school playing fields cheaper than Suffolk County Council’s contractor, while an idealistic desire to host a sixth form was subject to intensive scrutiny before it was dismissed as unpractical.
“Our community wanted a secondary school here in Clare,” said Mr Haisman.
“For between 40 to 100 kids, the option for this area was to go to Sudbury – that’s 900, 1,000 students – or Haverhill, where again it’s a bigger school, and it’s an 18-mile round trip.
“What we’ve set-up here is to give parents the choice between smaller rural and larger urban. Some parents will live in Clare, choose to go to Haverhill, and that’s absolutely great.
“We’re not politically biased, we’re not politically orientated – we used it as a means to an end for our community.”
But Mr Haisman’s vision extends even wider than the future of Clare’s children, with Stour Valley perhaps holding the key to the entire town’s future prosperity.
“Strategically, if you’ve got good education, you will attract families,” Mr Haisman added.
“If you’re attracting families, you will keep a variety of shops. If you’ve got demand for education, it creates demand for housing, you’ve got a community – that’s a really important economic issue for Clare.”
Major concerns greeted the launch of Stour Valley from communities in Sudbury and Haverhill, who feared their schools’ pupil numbers and subsequent funding would be hit.
However, Howard Lay, executive principal at Samuel Ward Academy in Haverhill, actually welcomed the school’s arrival in the area.
“We’ve collaborated with Stour Valley on a number of projects, it’s had absolutely no impact in terms of this school,” said Mr Lay.
“For all the apprehension that might have been expressed - it’s something we never voiced publicly, but there was some anxiety - but it’s had no impact on us whatsoever.”
Mr Lay has overseen the launch of the Churchill Free School in Haverhill, for children with speech, language and interaction needs.
The experienced head, who is also executive principal at Newmarket College, said there was bound to be more free schools in Suffolk given the abundance of empty buildings in the wake of the county council’s school organisation review - and said he would welcome any that “fulfil a need”.
“The risks are the lack of control because they’re very much outside the mainstream system, especially if you haven’t got a strong governing body,” he added.
“The reality is free schools are there, pupils attend them, parents have decided they’re the right school for their son or daughter.”
“The right thing to do is to work with them and welcome them into the Suffolk family of schools.”