Free schools at 10: Dixons 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 Sir Nick Weller, CEO of Dixons Academies Trust.  

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

Luke Sparkes (founding Principal of Dixons Trinity and now Deputy CEO) was the first to visit the States, and several of us went subsequently.  While he also took inspiration from schools in this country, both state and private, the way the best Charter Schools were able to transform life chances in some of the most educationally and socially dispossessed communities in and around New York was truly exceptional.  New entrants do not guarantee success, of course, and we believe we have developed and improved on the models we saw, but those visits with Future Leaders were probably the most significant initial inspiration.

Dixons Academies Trust has transformed outcomes across entire communities. Was that an early ambition when establishing free schools?

Yes.  Our mission is to challenge educational and social disadvantage in the north.  We focus exclusively on areas of social deprivation, either by sponsoring turnaround academies to address educational failure, or by opening new free schools to offer new opportunities and to meet growing demand.  Both routes are key to transforming the life opportunities of children and we do both in equal number.

Sponsoring academies enables us to intervene where the need is most critical.  Free schools have been crucial to this success, however:  with only one year group at the start each has been an unparalleled opportunity to develop and then refine a model to apply across the Trust.  They have also proved excellent seed beds to grow and nurture leadership, not only for other free schools but also for some of our most challenging turnarounds.  In its nine year history, for example, seven Trinity staff have gone on to headships, either with us or occasionally elsewhere.

What has been the most rewarding moment since opening your first free school?

There’ve been far too many to mention.  Dixons Trinity as the first secondary free school in the country to be judged Outstanding certainly attracted a great deal of attention and so far we have replicated that judgement with each one since, but we do things for students not for Ofsted, even if the endorsement is very welcome.  What Neil Miley achieved at Dixons Kings, taking on and transforming a struggling Wave 1 free school opened by another group, is just as much a source of pride.  If you believe in a programme, you have a duty to step in and fix thing when they don’t go right.

The opening day of each has probably been the most exciting, but the first results day in each has been perhaps the most rewarding.  To see that first cohort through to the end and to celebrate all that they have achieved – that’s when you know you have achieved your mission and are truly transforming the life chances of children.

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

Visit lots of other schools during pre-opening and plan in detail.  Look particularly at how they build and craft their culture.  Engage with the community – go door-to-door and tell families what you’re planning to do.  Facebook advertising is low-cost and targeted. 

Open with one year group and build up year by year from there so that you can really focus on developing your school the way you want it.  In some circumstances it can help to open with an agreed smaller roll, one rather than two primary classes in your first year for example.  Temporary or partially-open accommodation is often a reason to do this, but it also helps to guarantee that you are fully subscribed from the start.  

Consider linking up with a Multi-Academy Trust if you don’t have educational expertise yourself.  They also have the financial heft to see you through those early years when you don’t have economies of scale.  Appoint experienced leaders predominantly in each area first.  Only appoint people who are totally aligned to your mission and values as your main criteria.  Appoint people who are flexible and who can work hard: roles are very broad and demanding in the early years!

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

As public finances have tightened, there has been an increasing focus on the programme meeting a basic need for places.  While this will always be one purpose, the original focus was as much on being a driver of improvement and change in local areas where standards were poor.  I would like to see a return to the more standards-driven approach of the early years.

I would also like to see a return to the less risk-averse, more entrepreneurial approach which gave the movement its purpose and edge when it started.  Of course we need regulation and we also need accountability, but in this and in other ways it seems to me that the ESFA is so concerned to eradicate any risk that it often inadvertently eradicates the very policy objectives it supposedly serves.

What are the unique challenges of opening a primary or sixth form free school compared to a secondary free school?

Primary schools start very small, which is both an advantage and a limitation.  Starting an all-through school with both Reception and Year 7 will scale you up to sustainability quicker and enable you to share associate staff in admin, catering or caretaking for example across two cohorts from the start.

Sixth Form free schools are only two years away from final examination on the day they open.  We were even more focused on appointing staff who were both highly aligned and have a strong track record.  A strong culture can be more difficult to establish in a college-type environment:  our success is built on a culture of greater independent learning than at KS4 without the freedom to fail. 

In the drive for student recruitment, don’t compromise on entry requirements: focus on retention and results, not initial numbers.  It is better to smaller and successful than it is to take young people on and then fail them.

Does the concentration of Dixons Academies Trust in Bradford and Leeds enable you to be more responsive to the local community?

It certainly enabled us to build our reputation and win the trust of parents.  Glossy brochures are a waste of money, a good website is helpful to communicate, but word of mouth is the only truly powerful way to build your brand.  We do tailor ourselves slightly to each situation, but our prime focus is on a single, high-quality, educational experience shared by everyone no matter what their background. 

Geographical focus certainly helped us while we were developing our model and establishing success, to build links between schools and to identify and grow a well-defined backbone which we all share.  It also helps with deployment of staff and career development across the Trust, in both training and advancement.

Will you continue to grow, and if so, into new areas?

Certainly.  We have a successful model, and if we are to truly challenge educational and social disadvantage we shouldn’t just rest on our laurels.  We’ve been successful in our way, but groups like Outwood and Harris made a big difference to far more children.  With limited opportunities to grow any more locally at the moment, moving down the M62 to create North West hubs in Manchester and Liverpool is the strategy we’ve chosen.  We have our first two sponsored academies in Liverpool and a free school with first stage approval in Manchester.  We’ll certainly be bidding again in the next Wave, whenever the government commits to one.  They should do:  free schools are needed now as much as they were a decade ago.