Thetford Free School head reflects on a little school’s long journey

Staff at the Thetford Free School as they started setting up in temporary accommodation at the Bidwe

Staff at the Thetford Free School as they started setting up in temporary accommodation at the Bidwell Centre. l-r: Julie Preston, Julie Spence, Nico Dobben, Julie Cox, James Rice, Chris Tomlinson. - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2013

The Thetford Alternative Provision Free School may be as close as you can get to the original vision for free schools – a school set up by the local community to find news ways to address a gap in local provision.

Staff at the Thetford Free School, when they set up in temporary accommodation at the Bidwell Centre

Staff at the Thetford Free School, when they set up in temporary accommodation at the Bidwell Centre. l-r: Julie Preston, Julie Spence, Julie Cox, Chris Tomlinson, Nico Dobben, James Rice. - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2013

Thetford's pupil referral unit was closed in 2011, and a group of experienced Thetford teachers, with wide community backing, applied to set up a small school for children in the town who struggle in mainstream schools. The government approved the plan on its second attempt.

Finding a home has been a common problem for free schools, and, like the Sir Isaac Newton Sixth Form in Norwich, it opened last September in temporary premises – a Guide and Scout centre – and headteacher Nico Dobben said the building project had been the biggest challenge.

In June, it celebrated its official opening, with 20 pupils, at its permanent home in Staniforth Road. Here, he talked to education correspondent Martin George.

Measuring success

Because it is unlike most schools, Mr Dobben is careful in choosing how he measures its success.

One criteria is school attendance. Some children who attend lessons at the free school rarely if ever went to their previous school, and he said

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overall there was an average 25pc increase in attendance.

Another is behaviour issues, which he said had fallen by 20pc since the first term, with several pupils no longer having any problems.

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His third measure of success is where the children go after leaving the free school. As of June, five of the seven Year 11 pupils had firm offers of apprenticeships or college places, while the remaining two had college interviews coming up.

He said the school also had strong support from parents, with a 90pc turnout at the first parents' evening.

Ofsted is due to hold its first school inspection next term. How it decided to measure its success will be crucial.

Government support

Mr Dobben describes the support from the Department for Education as 'tremendous', with an education adviser coming once a term as a

critical friend, helping to set up tracking systems. But he found another branch of government, the Education Funding Agency (EFA), which funds education for learners aged three to 19, more tricky.

He said: 'I do think the EFA was on a bit of a learning curve when it came to releasing funds for an

alternative provision free school as it does not always fit the boxes.

'There would be funding available for equipment and classrooms, but we would have to have several conversations to persuade them that an amount of earth was considered a classroom.'

Given that the free school programme was set up to unleash a wave of innovation and new ways of delivering education, his experience of the EFA may seem surprising.

Problems of being small

As a free school, Thetford may be part of a flagship government policy, but it has still come up against many of the problems of other small schools.

Mr Dobben said: 'As a small school we are still expected to do exactly the same things as a big school, but we don't have the funds to do it. We don't have a full-time bursar or business manager. That's quite difficult sometimes.

'In the first six months of opening, I was both headteacher and caretaker. All staff stayed behind to clean the building until we could afford a cleaner.'

All the school's furniture is second-hand, and all staff are trained in restorative justice, first aid and food hygiene, and so can all do each others' jobs.

Mr Dobben praised the commitment of his staff, who have a combined 125 years of teaching in Thetford, and a 100pc attendance record since the school opened.

The future

Nationally, a theme emerging from some of the early stand-alone free schools was a sense that some struggled on their own without the support and experience of a wider organisation.

For Mr Dobben, the future of the Thetford Free School is not to expand beyond 40 pupils or to sponsor other schools, but to form links with others. It is similar to the county council's strategy for other small schools in Norfolk.

He said: 'We are an independent trust of four people. That is no doubt too small to sustain in the future as it depends on individuals. We would like to link up with others who do the same things, but we are one of only two alternative provision schools in the eastern counties.'

He added: 'We would be happy to join with other people, but we don't see ourselves as a trust which is trying to expand. We do see ourselves as a school and trust which would like to work very closely with others if possible, maybe in a federation.'

What is your experience of free schools? Email

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