Free schools at 10: Canary Wharf College uncut

To celebrate 10 years since the first free schools opened their doors, NSN published Free schools at 10: A decade of success

The collection of interviews featured founders/leaders of free schools of all type and phase from across the country, providing a candid insight into the process of establishing and running a free school.

The interview that follows is the original, uncut version with Sarah Counter, CEO of The Canary Wharf College Trust. 

What first inspired you to get involved with the free schools programme?

It was actually 20 years ago when I decided I wanted to start a “free school” - I had made an offer for a school building in Hampshire. I was keen to offer independent style education for free, but I couldn’t find a secure income stream to support the school. After Michael Gove announced the free school agenda, I resigned from my job in three months. I had the vision, and was ready to roll, as soon as the free schools policy announcement came. 

What was your original vision, and how has it been realised over time?

The original vision was to live, share and celebrate the love of learning in a Christian environment, which welcomed all faiths and cultures. I could have started a school in leafy Surrey where I’m from, but wanted to provide pupil places in an area of high need. I had seen the need in Tower Hamlets - I knew there was a bulge in pupils and therefore a shortage of pupil places.

The way to achieve my vision was to offer pupils and families smaller class sizes, a longer school day, and specialist taught music, languages and PE, with a broad range of extended activities like educational outings outside of school. I can hand on heart say that’s been delivered in Tower Hamlets between our two primaries which is really thrilling and exciting.  

What has been the most rewarding moment since opening East Ferry, Glenworth and Canary Wharf College 3?

The most rewarding moment was this summer when our year 2 children who started in 2011 took their GCSEs at Canary Wharf Cross Harbour, 95% of grades fell within 9-4. To see that success in the Isle of Dogs is a first.

I believe if you give pupils the foundation of a really good primary education they can succeed into secondary. A lot of money is traditionally poured into secondary education, but greater resources need to be delivered to primary. To learn to read, write and argue at primary level, gives children to grounding to take-off at secondary. I think we’ve proven that, but look forward to proving that even more as more of our primary pupils come through.

Staff growth and development has also been hugely rewarding. I see the staff as an extension of my family, especially those from the early days. One joined as a teaching assistant who didn’t really know what she wanted to do in life, but thought she might be interested in education. She’s now Deputy Head and well on her way to headship. To see staff flourish from teaching assistants to competent leaders, has been a real joy.

What was the local and national support like at the start?

The national support for the school and programme was pretty muted, and I think everyone from the first cohort of free schools would say that, really.

The community support was phenomenal. I hit it off with a key member of the local community – a real East-Ender. She knew this local community centre, where we started, needed heavy investment, and got the rest if the community behind us. I felt backed by the community all the way from then on. That was just tremendous. I found local east-enders incredibly welcoming and incredibly supportive. They couldn’t believe what I was offering would be available for free!

You had very little time from the launch of the policy to opening East Ferry, how challenging was this?

It was incredibly challenging, it really was. I was living from one moment to the next. The big thing was that I had no pay. I had to live off my husband for the first six months – which I have never been paid for. That personal aspect of the free school movement has never been documented. Two sets of parents, myself and my husband had to put in our own money to pay for things like publicity. We’ve never recouped that money.

The other thing was that the Department for Education had never seen anything like this policy. I documented and blogged our Ofsted pre-registration inspection at the time, which was a total disaster: The Department has sent the Chief Inspector to the wrong location; we took him round our site which was being torn down in the pouring rain; to make things even worse he was injured, and needed first aid after cutting his hand on our makeshift site.

Somehow he caught the vision for the school and recommended us; but those moments and stories were extraordinary, and felt like the most challenging of times.

Did you feel like you were doing something ground-breaking from the start? And did you feel like you carried a burden of responsibility for the success of the policy?

It was certainly a ground-breaking policy, from the beginning. Never before in the history of this country, had any ordinary person on the street been able to go to the Government and say I have a vision for a public service, please give me money.

It really was surreal. We had letters from the Secretary of State for Education, but we didn’t even have a letter box because our site was under construction – one ended up under a railway arch in a soggy puddle. Because we were in the first tranche of free schools we were invited to a garden party at Buckingham Palace, I was invited to meet David Cameron in Downing St and received invites to the House of Lords. I had never paid attention to politics before, and came to realise that I was completely up to my neck in it.   In 2011 we opened up to 60 children, with 9 staff and a bursar, cleaner and secretary. I’d go from wiping a child’s nose to Downing St.

The cherry on the top was receiving an Outstanding Ofsted rating two years after opening, and then receiving a letter from David Cameron at No.10. I remember getting a Christmas Card which signed off Michael and I couldn’t figure out who Michael was until I realised it was the Secretary of State Michael Gove. They were extraordinary times; and it was a huge responsibility knowing that it was taxpayer’s money going on this experiment, but I was confident, and knew I could do it.

Since you’ve opened your free school, what’s been the biggest change in the process of opening up a new school?

There was constant encouragement for free school founders, which isn’t there now. That support from the Government, as well as the community, kept me going during the hardest of times. Of course, I’ve opened up free schools for the children in Tower Hamlets, but there’s very little thanks or credit you receive now, which was certainly really needed in those early days. That lack of reward or credit is certainly the biggest change since opening East Ferry.

It was quite interesting when I came to open our second free school; other founders had become quite disenamored by the process. With the third school, there was no encouragement at all from the Government – that was incredibly dispiriting. I don’t think the Government has ever recognised the enormity of establishing a new school independently from a trust. We really had nothing when we opened up East Ferry. We didn’t have glue sticks, teaspoons, toilet brushes. I often used to clean the toilets and empty the bins with my bursar. I don’t think the Government had realised the enormity of it, but at least there was recognition in the early days. Now, even though the enormity is just the same, there’s no recognition.    

At the beginning, as well, we used to email the DfE, and it would take about two weeks to get a response. It took a long time that they had no idea what they were doing either. Once both parties recognised that we were both in this unfamiliar territory, we were able to joke about it and work together. Now, the DfE certainly knows what it’s doing, but the bureaucracy was mind-blowing establishing the Glenworth and Canary Wharf Cross Harbour – and sucks the life out of you. 

What would you like the free school’s programme to look like in 10 years’ time?

The programme has to become more streamlined and needs less bureaucracy. The building process, especially, has to change – because free schools were high on the agenda with the inception of the programme, the Government bent over backward to get schools open in accommodation. I’m opening a temporary premise at Cross Harbour this year which is exactly the same size as the building for East Ferry – they did it in 9 weeks for East Ferry, this one is 9 months. The bureaucracy just to sort of temporary premises - it just makes me want to cry. I’ve currently got children in cramped conditions. We could have received support with temporary premises by September, but the because the bureaucracy is so great instead they have to wait to February to move into new temporary site.

How proud are you of the impact you’ve made to education in the Tower Hamlets local authority over the past ten years?

We’ve offered options and choices for parents in Tower Hamlets, giving parents in the community an opportunity to benefit from smaller class sizes, a longer school say which has aligned with their working schedules and school holidays programmes. Loads of parents were in the position where they were working and needed a school like this.

When we start especially, we coincided with explosion of new cultures in East London. There were and still are very few Cockneys in classes – it’s a hugely multicultural and diverse school, which has brightened the horizons for pupils. We’re proud that children from all nationalities learn from each other. The other schools that existed in the area were CofE or schools were schools where generations of parents had gone to before. They were quite specific and targeted to certain communities. The secondary school in particular, is now just the second secondary school in the Isle of Dogs. There just wasn’t enough option and choice for parents.

What advice would you give to somebody else embarking on their free school journey?

Arm yourself with resilience. Hold onto the vision. Focus on the children you’re doing it for.

Setting up a free school is a tough job with little personal recognition - if you focus on the children you’ll carry it through.