The Free School Norwich – the first two years
The Free School Norwich was one of the first of a new type of school, and was in the eye of the national political and educational debate before it even opened its doors. A week after its first Ofsted report, education correspondent Martin George looks at its first two years.
New schools are created every year, but few can have spent their infancy in as bright a national spotlight as the Free School Norwich.
It was one of the pioneering group of 24 free schools when it opened its doors in September 2011, and last week, as it prepared for the end of its second year, Ofsted passed judgment for the first time.
The inspectors rated the Surrey Street school 'good'. It said all students make good progress and the school had been put on a firm footing, and early problems with bullying and attendance had been reduced.
Of its peers, four were judged 'outstanding', 13 others were 'good', five 'require improvement' and one received the bottom rating of 'inadequate' – proportions broadly in line with national trends.
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But for principal Tania Sidney-Roberts, the 24 schools had more to prove than existing ones because they were at the centre of controversy about the government's education reforms. Prime minister David Cameron visited just five days after it opened.
She said careful planning meant establishing a brand new school from a completely blank canvas was 'fairly straightforward'.
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'By far the biggest challenge in establishing the Free School Norwich has come from the national and political interest surrounding the first 24 free schools,' she said.
'The school has often been in the press or on TV and radio during the past two years and it has sometimes been very difficult to protect the school community from the political debate surrounding us.
'There have been many misconceptions about free schools and quite a lot of hostility towards us from certain sections of society. Answering all the questions and freedom of information requests fired at us, many of them based on bizarre misconceptions, has been quite time consuming when there has been a school to get on with leading and managing.'
She said she had lost count of the number of university graduates asking to carry out educational research about the school, with requests coming from as far away as Japan, and getting the balance between accommodating public interest and protecting the children's education was sometimes difficult.
The Free School Norwich is a one-form-of-entry school, and was heavily oversubscribed this year, with 107 applications for 24 places.
The school has used its freedoms to operate six terms a year, named harvest, Christmas, winter, spring, Whitsun and summer, with a two-week holiday between each, extended to four weeks in August.
It also offers extended provision before and after school hours, designed to help working parents.
According to a Department for Education impact assessment drawn up before the school opened, and recently released under the Freedom of Information Act, Norfolk County Council had raised concerns about its effect on admissions to existing schools.
It particularly said that Nelson Infant School and Wensum Junior School were 'at risk of losing a significant number of pupils', although government officials said they doubted the free school would threaten the future viability of either school.
Richard Snowden, the council's head of admissions, said this week that because admission to the free school is based on a lottery system, rather than on a geographical catchment area, the school should spread admissions over a wide area, and its opening had coincided with a growing pressure on school places in the greater Norwich area.
Colin Collis, county secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, remains sceptical about the school, and the wider free school programme.
He said while he was not aware of redundancies at schools that had lost pupils to the free school, there was 'no question' it would lead to a reduction in their funds.
He said: 'Creating new schools when there are spare places in the system is bad value for money for the taxpayer. It was the creation of a free school largely for parents who work in the city and who would, to a degree, use it as a dropping off point for children.
'From a local point of view there are other perfectly good schools, and the free school system is costing us a lot of money, and people should take it with a large pinch of salt.'
Looking to the future, Mrs Sidney-Roberts said with the school reaching full capacity for the first time in September, it would look to start fully participating in local sporting events.
Its bid to set up a partner free school secondary school was rejected by ministers in May, but the principal said she was 'very likely' to open further primary schools in Norwich in the 'not too distant future', as well as expanding its dyslexia provision.
Mrs Sidney-Roberts said: 'At the end of the day, we are just a school however and we have to follow all the same laws, regulations and meet the same standards that any other school has to. I think most people are beginning to realise this now and I have learned to stand firmly by my convictions during the past two years in the face of hostility and misconceptions about free schools.'