Saxmundham Free School headteacher reflects on ‘growing public confidence’ and record GCSE results

Saxmundham Free School. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Saxmundham Free School. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN - Credit: Archant

Enemies of education reform had had some ammunition available during the embryonic stages of Saxmundham Free School: poor GCSE results, a serious warning letter, unfilled school places.

But defenders of the free school policy, Michael Gove’s experiment as education secretary, argue that, much like businesses, they should be allowed to fail before finding success. The test is whether they can recover after stumbling.

“I don’t think any business is expected to make money in the first two or three years,” said David Lees, headteacher of Saxmundham Free School.

“It is about responding to market forces and having that resilience. One of the things that we have shown is that we are resilient. We are here for the long haul, and if you give us students for five years, we will deliver.”

The free school, run by the Seckford Foundation Free Schools Trust, opened at the town’s former middle school in September 2012. There were 104 students in Years 7, 8, and 9 but space for 216. Now there are 450 pupils. Year 8 is full.

Saxmundham Free School. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Saxmundham Free School. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN - Credit: Archant

The trust also runs Beccles and Ixworth free schools. This is the first of a series of features to reflect on their first five years.


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Mr Lees said: “We were set up by a parent group who approached Seckford. We are surrounded by schools with large numbers, sixth forms. They wanted a small school with high expectations, delivering outstanding education and pastoral care, with a traditional curriculum. Everyone will do a language. We have a longer day (8am breakfast club, optional 4pm to 5pm extra-curricular activities), enrichment such as the Combined Cadet Force or the £10 award to develop an entrepreneurial spirit.

“When pupils arrive here, they take their picture and put it on the wall of what they want to be. It might say journalist. So let’s meet a journalist. What GCSEs do they need? What college and university will they go to? It’s about making them as informed as they can be.”

The summer 2017 results were the first cohort of GCSEs for most free schools. Many posted results of 80% or better for entries graded C or better, including in deprived areas. The national average was 66.3%. Free schools performed the best for SATs taken by infants in 2017. This was trumpeted as evidence of success. “I don’t think they (free schools) had to prove themselves,” Mr Lees said. “Every school needs to do the best it can.”

Saxmundham Free School. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Saxmundham Free School. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN - Credit: Archant

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In Suffolk, free schools comprised three of the top 10 schools for Progress 8 (rate of progression at secondary school) in 2017. Saxmundham Free School was fifth. Its score of 0.46 meant all 37 students achieved half a grade better than expected in every subject. Two-thirds (65%) passed English and maths, slightly better than local and national averages.

This was a significant improvement from 2015 (30%, before Mr Gove’s toughened-up reforms), its first GCSE results which triggered a warning notice from the regional schools commissioner over “unacceptably low” results. The Progress 8 score was an ‘average’ -0.01.

Mr Lees, who joined the school in 2014, said. “I don’t think they were embarrassing because we knew the students were going to deliver due to internal tracking. I want every student to fulfil their expectations. Each of the 113 students who have left has gone onto a post-16, a higher education, or an apprenticeship. Nobody is NEET (not in education, employment, or training).

“Those results were nowhere near what we wanted but I’m delighted they didn’t prevent students from getting to their post-16 choice. If you look at our results from 2014, 2015, and 2016, our progress has been strong. For English (in 2017), they got a grade higher (than expected), which is phenomenal.

Saxmundham Free School. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Saxmundham Free School. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN - Credit: Archant

“There is public and community confidence. I have open forums for parents every six weeks. Because of that, the community knew the first two years were going to be a challenge. If we hadn’t delivered (in 2017), I think they would have been saying ‘hang on Mr Lees, you said you would and you haven’t’. We didn’t have a magic wand. We made sure the students left with that full and rounded education around their character, skills, and opportunities, and the results are part of that. We knew that would come.

“But equally, I believe the students who left here in 2015 were better students because of the education they had here.”

Each year group has space for 120 students. Mr Lees expects between 90-100 this September.

He said: “It would be great to have 120 but we are a new, growing school, and people are sometimes wary or don’t understand the term free school. Going back to the analogy of a new business, we have to keep doing what we do well, and then encourage people to see the school. We will continue to grow and we will get to full capacity.”

Saxmundham Free School. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Saxmundham Free School. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN - Credit: Archant

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