Most of us had not heard of the term ‘free school’ before the general election in May this year. Four months on and it is an accepted part of educational terminology. Just what is all the fuss about and what difference will it make to our existing school system?

What is a free school?
According to the new Department for Education, free schools are ‘all-ability state-funded schools set up in response to parental demand.’ The key ideological point is that they are not run by the local authority. September 2011 will see the opening of the first free schools. This part of government policy has presented a whirlwind of opportunities. However, there has been very little guidance about what they actually are or how they might look. The biggest clues have come from two models of free schools – Swedish free schools and US charter schools. These are described by the New Schools Network (NSN) as successful new schools which have not replaced the existing systems in their countries, but have provided an alternative.

Not everyone agrees with this summary. Teaching unions are sceptical, with the NASUWT describing them as, ‘an unnecessary and costly gamble’. There may be uncertainty about the evidence of their success and the extent to which they will improve existing state provision, but there has been no let-up in interest. Or so we are told.

Who will run free schools?
There is certainly room here for established and practised providers. For example, the Global Education Management Systems (GEMS) chain runs around 60 international schools worldwide and is watching carefully to see how the free school movement develops in Britain. Such practised businesses will want guarantees about financial viability to secure their involvement.

We hear about some highly publicised campaigns to open new schools, such as that led by journalist Toby Young. We’ve been told that teachers are some of the most prominent campaigners for an opportunity to establish their own provision. But who actually is going to the New Schools Network website and clicking on the ‘Set up a school’ tab?

A free school emerges
James Woods has his eye firmly focused on a new school for Shepherd’s Bush in west London. He’s already a long way down the line of putting in his application and has a clear view of what he wants to emerge. ‘We’ve ambitions for a primary school of 300 with two-form entry. I’m quite happy for it to be similar to the other good schools we have round here. The problem isn’t quality, but quantity. There just aren’t enough places for the children who want them.’

James wants to give something back. He’s not a parent in the area, but he does live there and has teamed up with others who are. He recognises the frustrations they experience when they can’t get the places they want for their children. And it’s not just the parents. Local heads are struggling to accommodate the requests they have.

‘It’s not about setting up a school in competition. Other local heads have been very encouraging. It’s a dilemma for them too. They are being asked to squeeze children in and they haven’t got the capacity to do it. They are more than happy to see another school emerge to share some of this demand.’

James’s mission is clear. ‘There is nothing more important than preparing the next generation,’ he says. At the moment his sights are set on primary provision. When asked about the possibility of an all-through school he is hesitant. ‘There are plenty of secondary school places available. There are good secondary schools in the area and at the moment the demand isn’t there. We have some outstanding provision, including two new academies. But, I’m taking each step at a time. We will build our school up on a year-by-year basis. Who knows?’

How will this affect local authorities?
It’s a massive ‘who knows’ for many people at this stage. Not least the local authorities, which are finding themselves caught in the middle of this. No doubt, there are differences across the country but for Hammersmith and Fulham, this is not a project to be ignored or shied away from. James wants to maintain the links with them and does not see his school as an outpost existing in a vacuum. ‘I’m very keen to collaborate with other local schools. I wrote to them all and described what we had planned and the reasons why. The response has been extremely positive. Headteachers recognise the need and support us. I’ve had some encouraging letters back. I believe that we can work together and with the LA too.’

Building a Free School team
Much of it is about establishing the right kind of team. For James Woods this includes two headteachers who have the skills to help with what is a particularly demanding project. ‘One of them has just retired and was looking for a good project to be involved in. He has a history of successful headship behind him. The other has been the headteacher of an independent school in Switzerland. She is coming to this from a strong position. She has led and managed a very successful school, but now, coming back to the UK, it’s a good time for her to become involved in our project.’

James is not coming to this from a naïve position as he has lots of experience of working with schools. He is the managing director of a national company that supports secondary schools in increasing their community use. He knows what the issues are: ‘I have an office in a secondary school. I hear and experience on a day-to-day basis the challenges that schools are facing. I am a privileged observer who understands what the implications of child protection are, for example. I hear and see how important establishing good behaviour is and what some of the key issues are for schools.’

In his line of work, checking the suitability of staff and making arrangements for safeguarding are a key component of his job. His background also means that he has the business sense and entrepreneurial spirit that could make this work. It’s not for the faint-hearted.

Challenges to face
Free schools are still an unknown entity. At this stage it is likely that many of the new schools will look very different from the concept schools forged from the ‘Building Schools for The Future’ programme. This isn’t about image. In fact, it is likely that many free schools will emerge from all kinds of unlikely buildings. Potential providers are being advised in NSN guidance to ‘be creative. Get a couple of people to cycle round looking at unused D1 properties owned by the local authority’. D1 land is non-residential and properties might include old schools, libraries and museums. And if nothing is available it is suggested that potential schools might look at other premises in the area that they might rent in the short term.

James Woods explains how they took the NSN advice and walked around the local area looking for the right kind of premises. ‘We have recognised that we need more help with this. We’re going out to tender, seeking professional advice from chartered surveyors and consultants. We’ll be asking them about the premises we have seen. “Can you make it viable?” is the important question.’

New Schools Network
For many potential providers, knowing who your friends are and who to engage with must be a hurdle in itself. The New Schools Network is the independent charity established to provide advice for those interested in setting up a new school in their area. The idea is that they will help individuals with an interest link up with those who have the experience and expertise.

And, of course, there’s always the Department for Education. ‘We’ve had long conversations with the DfE,’ James explains. ‘We have to make sure that it will work and they are obviously keen that it does too.’ But money isn’t a particular worry. James is clear who is picking up the bill and although he recognises the importance of value for money he also knows that he’s not responsible for digging deep financially.

A brand new school is an opportunity to start from scratch. It must be tempting to embrace all kinds of preferences and individual ambitions. Toby Young and his team are in the process of establishing the West London Free School. This will deliver a classical curriculum, with every pupil expected to learn Latin up to the age of fourteen. According to the school’s steering committee, ‘A classical education forms the bedrock of Britain’s most successful independent schools and we don’t see why it shouldn’t be available in the state sector, too.’

James Woods, on the other hand, is taking a slightly more conservative approach to curriculum content. ‘We are going to begin with something very traditional. Something that everyone is comfortable with that is within our comfort zone of provision. At the moment we don’t want to test the unknown but to present something that is totally conventional. Once the dust settles we can start to innovate more. We have to deliver a school that people trust and that’s within their experience. You need a mandate to try new things. On that side, there’s a long way to go.’

So how does it feel to be just past the starting gate of such an ambitious project? James has already expressed his excitement and passion. ‘I love this creative, fluid environment. It’s really exciting and people are ready to have the conversation. It’s opened up lots of possibilities.’

Talking to James, there is no doubt that he has the dedication, enthusiasm and determination to make this work. He also recognises that there are downsides. ‘This is an unprecedented situation. We are trailblazing and as well as being exciting it is risky – a tricky animal. We have already made mistakes, but the good thing is that because of the way we have approached it, with an open mind and open door, people are with us.’ And that includes local politicians and local constituents.

For James, there is also a sense that the sky is the limit. ABC Academies is the title given to the new venture and at there is an expressed intention of establishing up to eight free primary schools in the London area. James is, after all, a businessman with an eye for a good venture. If this first project into setting up a new school is successful he admits that there might well be more. ‘We might do it again. Once we have the knowledge base then it’s also about sharing what we’ve learnt. We are learning so much it would be a pity to keep it to ourselves.’

But in the meantime there are some practical considerations. Not least what the name of the new school will be. ‘We’ve brainstormed on this one and have come up with all sorts – the weird and the wonderful.’ They would have liked to have decided on their new name before this article went to press. But this is a challenge that’s not for the rushing if it’s to deliver the promises made on its behalf.

And finally
When the notion of free schools was first mooted by the coalition government it may have sounded a little like a return to grant maintained status. People such as James Woods are showing that free schools could open up whole new ways of decentralising education and making it work for local communities. The government is certainly keen to make it clear that these schools will be requested by parents. Free schools could be an interesting initiative. Watch this space.

Support and advice for budding free schools is available from the New Schools Network. Suzanne O’Connell is a former primary headteacher.