Radical Norfolk free school plan

Norfolk could be the base for Britain's largest split-site school, to provide an alternative education for potentially hundreds of youngsters who are not switched on by traditional schooling.

Charity The Benjamin Foundation is on the brink of approaching the government with the radical free school plan, which would see students leaving the classroom behind and learning in the great outdoors.

Chief executive Richard Draper wants Norfolk to be 'one great big classroom' to inspire a generation of children who may be non-plussed by mainstream methods.

Talks are already at an advanced stage for a high-profile base in North Norfolk and a made-to-measure building in Great Yarmouth, with the plan to find other sites in Norwich, and the south and west of Norfolk.

The buildings, which will also include residential areas for children who want to board or who have long distances to travel, would be used as 'launching pads' for the students to get out to farms, fields, nature reserves, theatres and factories to learn.

If ministers agree, the free school - which has a working title of Benjamin's School, as a tribute to Mr Draper's late son Benjamin - would be funded by the government and available for nothing to youngsters anywhere in Norfolk.

Discussions have already taken place with the New Schools Network, the quango that supports the government's plans for free schools, which are funded directly and can be set up by groups of parents, teachers, charities or businesses.

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One of the nation's first free schools, Free School Norwich, is set to open in September in a former Aviva office building in Surrey Street.

Mr Draper said: 'Given my teaching background there was a recognition that mainstream schools are not always an environment where children are happy, successful and achieving their potential.

'There's a feeling that the Benjamin Foundation stands a good chance of doing something very positive about that by taking a different approach to how those children and young people undertake their learning.

'We want the primary offer to be through first-hand, experiential learning, rather than classroom-based learning. The vast block of the learning would be done outside the classroom - in the world of nature, sport, performance, dance and theatre.'

He said the school - which he hoped would attract 'hundreds, or even thousands of children' - would initially cater for eight- to 16-year-olds, with a plan to extend to pre-eight and 16-18 in the future.

An application could be made by June this year, with a target start date of September 2012.

Mr Draper said: 'Each child would have an individual learning plan, based on who they are, where they come from and what they want to be. No child would miss out on accessing the national curriculum, but it would be embedded in their learning.

'This is not just about what goes on in the brain, but in the body and the soul. If you look at the international statistics, our country is horrendously down the league tables for emotional wellbeing.'

He added: 'It's not to knock what schools are doing, but there are a number of young people for whom mainstream schools are not necessarily where they feel most comfortable and can achieve their potential.

'We have a national curriculum that puts children through a lot of testing and grinds them out at the other end. And vocational education in this country is appalling.

'All children deserve to be happy and to achieve their full potential. At the moment some are being constrained by an externally prescribed and limiting curriculum.'

He said teachers would be fully qualified, and added that efforts would be made to attract other paid staff and volunteers to make the pupil-teacher ratio three or four to one.

'There are enormous opportunities if we can get this off the ground to demonstrate that there's a way to do this differently. I don't think we will have any difficulty finding professionals who want to get involved.

'If there's a need out there it will create its own market. If we can do this it's the most important thing that the Benjamin Foundation will ever do. The whole of Norfolk becomes a school.'

Mr Draper explained how it would work in practical terms, saying that children would be able to shape their own curriculum and decide where to learn.

He said: 'If you wanted to spend time studying wildlife on Morston Marsh, there are so many aspects to it. There is the physics of bird migration, the geography of where they come from, the natural science of marsh life and the geology of the marsh.

'That works in pretty much every subject area.

'We are looking for short-stay residential to be part of the experience, so that a child in South Norfolk who wants the coast to be part of their learning experience is not disadvantaged. Maybe four nights a week or even longer-term.'

* Find out more by visiting the Facebook page – Benjamin's School or following @benjaminsschool on Twitter.

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