Cobham Free School - A First ‘Nomadic’ Decade

Nearly a decade on since opening, development of Cobham Free School's permanent site is complete. Michaela Khatib, the Executive Head, reflects on the journey her school has been through since opening in 2012.

When a pupil entered our beautiful new atrium for the very first time and declared, “this feels just like a hotel”, I knew that after almost ten years in temporary accommodation we had finally achieved our goal to develop a truly exceptional, permanent building for Cobham Free School (CFS).

Until this point, our journey to establish an all-through school had been fraught with hurdles, peppered with planning application rejections and delays. Thus, as CFS had expanded during its first decade and outgrown premises, we had occupied an eclectic range of dwellings situated across four split-sites.

Our spacious, new surroundings were a far cry from the school’s humble beginnings. The original bid had been written from my dining table in May 2011. With the vision to bring best practice from state and private sectors, our proposal for a one form entry primary included: small class sizes; cloud-based ICT; strong music and sports emphasis; and a rigorous, knowledge-based curriculum. Our approach combined an innovative mix of traditional and modern strategies, providing high quality education, steeped in cultural capital for children from all backgrounds and abilities.

Although an Edwardian police station had already been identified as a potential site, securing and developing the premises proved difficult due to planning delays. Therefore, when we opened in September 2012 with our first forty-four infant pupils, it was in a small Gospel Hall, complete with high-vaulted ceiling, few internal walls, attic-room office and feature ‘walk-in’ underground font. This was our first, but unfortunately not our final, experience of temporary accommodation.

We eventually took occupation of the police station in November 2013, and in September 2014 opened a senior department on the site as a first step to becoming an all-through school for over a thousand children. However, even with the lease renewed on the Gospel Hall, we soon outgrew this space. Following the unexpected rejection of a planning application for onsite demountable units in July 2015, we found ourselves with just the summer holidays to secure accommodation for the admission of our next senior cohort.

While potentially catastrophic, we held our nerve and only a fortnight before the start of the Autumn Term were able to share the good news that we were moving to Hurst Park, West Molesey. This was a great relief, despite the premises being a rather tired ex-primary school situated seven miles from Cobham.

Determined to remain optimistic, we imaginatively adapted the premises to meet our needs. The fridge ‘humming’ in the hall during assemblies (a temporary kitchen solution) provided an unusual harmonic accompaniment, but the place served us well for a five year stretch, enough time to expand to Year 11 and deliver a respectable first set of GCSEs.

Having considered a number of options, the Department for Education successfully purchased an office complex, Munro House, in 2016 to become our ‘forever’ home, and once the matter of existing tenants had been resolved, the design phase to develop a state-of-the-art facility commenced. Our sixth form entered two refurbished wings in September 2019 ahead of the rest of the school which remained split across our other three locations. The planning committee meeting to approve the development of the rest of the site in February 2020 was a particularly tense affair, with two protected trees almost costing us a successful outcome.

And then in March 2020, on the home stretch, just as construction began, the pandemic arrived, bringing supply chain and workforce risks. However, Covid-19 was no match for a school community which had endured a decade of difficulties. With work continuing despite lockdowns, timeframes were met for a partial handover in September 2020 allowing the decant from Hurst Park, followed by full practical completion on 3 March 2021.

Throughout our arduous journey the CFS community has remained resilient, tenacious and solution-focused. Whilst always mindful that a building does not make a school, CFS has grown and flourished through the most unprecedented times to become one of the most oversubscribed establishments in Surrey.

Our supportive staff team has maintained a spirit of optimism and indeed, one colleague recently described the experience as ‘the longest but most comprehensive team-building activity ever’. Significantly, pupils also seem to have benefited from being part of the ‘adventure’, observing first hand what can be achieved with vision and perseverance. We may have developed a generation of entrepreneurs.

The next chapter in the history of CFS is about to begin and we can’t wait to see what the future holds.