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 Siobhan Meredith, Headteacher at Marine Academy Primary.
What first inspired you to get involved with the free schools programme?
Opening a free school is such a magical prospect; the opportunity is second to none. There is a brilliant chance to create the right ethos from the start and it enables you to set the standards, expectations and culture from day one. You also have the ability to appoint new staff and attract staff of the highest calibre, with the promise of career progression.
Creating a new school, means that there are no historical issues that you are dealing with but having said that, it does not make it easier, it just makes the journey different. There are so many policies and practices that you do not think about until you realise that you do not have them when you open a free school.
The free schools programme truly is a wonderful opportunity to create an educational setting for some of our most deprived children – who would not find that exciting!
What was your original vision, and how has it been realised over time? What is your core mission, and how is it unique to Marine Academy Primary?
In 2012, the DfE said “The right school can transform a child’s life and help them achieve things they may never have imagined.” and it was this that helped to form the original vision for Marine Academy Primary. The core mission and vision for the Academy has evolved over time but has always had ‘an outstanding education that ensures all pupils reach their greatest potential and live by life’s highest values’ at its core. The vision has been further realised over time through joining the Ted Wragg Trust. The Ted Wragg Trust has the highest expectations for every child, every day, with social justice at our core. We are determined for everyone to fulfil their greatest potential, to be the best that they can be. Our inclusive Trust has a relentless commitment to help transform lives through learning.
Starting small and growing, ensuring the future success of Marine Academy Primary was scalable during its growth, enabled us to create a ‘village feel in inner city Plymouth’. This is unique to us because on visiting the Academy, you will get a feeling unlike any other – from the broad and ambitious curriculum to exceptionally well-mannered children and from the Academy dogs, chickens, guinea pigs, ducks and rabbits to the dedicated, positive and passionate staff team.
What has been the most rewarding moment since opening your free school?
There are so many rewarding moments since Marine Academy Primary has opened, including:
- September 2013, the first children entered the temporary accommodation
- April 2014, the permanent building was completed
- June 2015, the Academy became the South West’s first Outstanding free school
- September 2017, the Academy re-designated as a 2-11 year old provider and opened its doors to Pre-School children
- July 2018, the first children left Year 6
- April 2020, Marine Academy Primary officially joined the Ted Wragg Trust
- July 2020, the original children who joined in Reception 2013 completed their primary journey with us
In addition to this, every week our children achieve something incredible or go above and beyond in so many ways!
What advice would you give to somebody else embarking on their free school journey?
The journey is not one of school improvement but is instead one of school creation. You may have had experience of turning a school around but setting up a new school is different to this. Be aware that you are entering into the unknown and the level of uncertainty can be scary, as you do not always have the answers. In addition, you may well feel isolated and be in competition for places with other schools. Throughout the journey, try to remain outward facing but also try to get things right from the start, as there is not the time to get things wrong and start again.
Located in an area of high disadvantaged, how important is building positive relationships with parents/carers to your success?
The Ted Wragg Trust invests its energy and resource to help build optimistic and resilient communities and relishes the responsibility to grow exciting futures for all. We are committed to furthering social justice and providing fairer and more inclusive opportunities. One of the main levers to ensuring this is by building positive relationships with parents/carers and ensuring full buy in from them, as we want our pupils to aspire to fulfil their potential. We will help to develop children who are self-aware, independently minded and confident citizens of the future and a way of ensuring this comes to fruition is to ensure parents/carers are part of this success. After all, parental engagement is consistently associated with pupils’ achievements at school.
How has the school’s curriculum evolved since you first began? What inspired the Marine Curriculum?
At Marine Academy Primary, our mission is to provide an outstanding education that ensures all pupils reach their greatest potential and live by life’s highest values and our curriculum embodies this. We have developed our own Marine Curriculum, which is comprehensive, where children learn through exploration, has a clear process of learning with specific learning goals for every National Curriculum subject, for personal learning and for international mindedness. The Marine Curriculum sets out clear progression and application of skills across all areas. We aim to ensure pupils are independently minded and confident citizens of the future.
Our curriculum drives progress through establishing a rigorous knowledge base and a life-long love of learning. We have considered the knowledge, skills and attitudes that are required to achieve academic excellence at secondary school and beyond. Subject leaders and teachers then plan backwards from this point. This ensures that pupils in each year group receive a rigorous, coherent and intelligently sequenced curriculum, which builds on what has come before. The curriculum at Marine Academy Primary is grounded in the strongest available evidence about how pupils learn and retain knowledge in the long term – focusing in particular on research from cognitive science.
This curriculum has evolved over time and even more so in recent years following a successful partnership with Reach Academy Feltham. Our curriculum has always been broad, ambitious and about more than reading, writing and Maths but we have worked exceptionally hard to rethink the timetable and ensure that all subjects are provided adequate time and that our children have the opportunity to excel in and learn knowledge about a range of subjects.
Since you’ve opened, you have recruited few staff with prior teaching experience. Why is this important, and how do you mould teachers to the school’s culture?
This was initially important to support our budget but we also found that we were able to recruit the most talented Newly Qualified Teachers who were up for the challenge of working in a new school and were eager for career progression. An example of this is that our Assistant Headteachers were both appointed as NQTs and have developed as leaders into these senior roles. Our Inclusion Leader, Head of School and Performing Arts Leader all have a wealth of previous teaching experience and this balances our staff team really well. We now have a whole host of class teachers who have recently been appointed as Associate Leaders and are further developing our curriculum by being wider curriculum subject leaders, whilst others are supporting our Senior Leaders in their roles, as they work across the Trust and beyond as system leaders.
The way we do things at Marine Academy Primary is marmite and others will either love it or hate it. We do have a centralised curriculum but rather than our staff team seeing this as taking ownership away from them, they see it as a way for them to ensure that they are delivering the best knowledge in the best way to our children because it has been planned for by subject specialists. The same can be said about the fact that our children sit in rows, we did this pre-COVID because it helped to minimise low level disruption; it does not mean that group work can no longer happen though. We have a really low staff turnover amongst teachers and our teachers really are some of the most dedicated to ensuring social justice that you will find – it is part of our DNA.
How do you support pupils to transition into secondary?
We ensure that we share detailed, personalised information about our Year 6 children with the secondary schools that they are transitioning to. With over two thirds of our children transitioning to Marine Academy Plymouth, the school that we share our Campus with, this makes it a great deal easier. We share internal data, alongside our own predictions about the children; give an example of every child's English and Maths learning, which is their ‘Personal Best’; take on approaches similar to the schools the children will be attending e.g. Sparx, Lexia and Accelerated Reader. In addition to this, the Marine Curriculum prepares children for secondary school as they have developed core knowledge and understanding about discrete subjects, that they will learn throughout Key Stage 3 and beyond.
We have also recently started to collaborate more with our local secondary school to ensure that the learning habits they foster in their children are the same as what we encourage and we use a consistent language to promote that. In addition, this year, when many schools were cancelling their Year 7 Transition Events, we made sure that our children had this opportunity at Marine Academy Plymouth in a COVID-safe way, which helped to ease any anxiety prior to the summer break.
During the final term of Year 6, we share three books with our children that help them in their journey to secondary school, these are ‘Go Big: The Secondary School Survival Guide’ by Matthew Burton, ‘You Are Awesome: Find Your Confidence and Dare to be Brilliant at (Almost) Anything’ by Matthew Syed and ‘Wonder’ by R. J. Palacio. The three books are empowering and help the children to discover how practise, hard work and a positive growth mind-set can help anyone achieve success. This is very similar to our motto at Marine Academy Primary – ‘Work Hard, Be Kind and Amazing Things Will Happen’.
What would you like the free schools programme to look like in 10 years’ time?
For Free Schools to continue to open in areas of need with high disadvantage and for great teachers who understand disadvantaged children’s needs, who are good role models, to work in them.