To showcase the excellent work of free school leaders across the country, NSN has conducted a series of interviews with leaders of recently opened free schools to hear how they’ve implemented their vision and confronted the challenges of opening a new school.
We recently spoke to Andrew Taylor, Headteacher of St. Gabriel’s CofE Academy, who kindly shared with us his experience of opening a primary school in Warwickshire in 2018.
Could you tell us about the original idea behind your school?
The local authority needed school places and we wanted to bring in Christian distinctiveness and love into the area. It was an interesting group of stakeholders that we navigated – the diocese, the local authority (LA) and even New Schools Network (NSN). We were a presumption route free school and it has been an interesting journey.
What is unique about your school?
The school is unique due to our focus on community. We knew we would be welcoming families that were new to the area and we took the decision to open to all year groups at once. This is quite unique for a primary school and we thought it was the right thing to do for the community. We wanted to be able to communicate love and to do this, we had to communicate love to each other, as a staff team.
What were the main challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?
Rapid growth was a major challenge. In our first year, we had 70 children, spread from reception to Year Six and we had four classes to manage on the first day. In our second year, we had 160 pupils. We now have 280 pupils. Funding has also been a major challenge. We moved from estimated funding onto lagged funding because we had Year Six pupils from the first year. This has been difficult to navigate but the LA have been helpful. We have also been intentional about generating our own income through hiring out facilities for after-school provision and community use.
How did you establish and develop an identity for your school?
Building our school’s identity has been interesting. One of the first things I did was set out what the school would be. The vision was at the centre of the recruitment packs, and everyone who attended school visits and open days knew the vision and our values. Our pupils are also very familiar with these visions and values, as we celebrate them every week. We were supported by our local developers in creating our identities. They were keen that we had a strong brand to push out into the community, and have benefited from this.
How do you define success at St Gabriel’s CofE Academy?
Success means that we have a happy and strong community who have been able to navigate the challenges and come out strongly. We have been able to see pupils come to us from across the country and the local areas and they have been able gel together. We have been successful in providing community and helping people find a ‘home’.
What inspired you to lead a brand new school?
I thought it was a unique opportunity to lead a new school and bring a vision to life. I found the freedom inspiring and to think about how I could contribute to a pupil’s journey was inspiring. As well as creating a school, we were setting up a trust and the scope to repeat this and welcome other schools into our community was a wonderful opportunity.
Has anything surprised you since opening the new school?
A lot of things have surprised me along the journey. There are a lot of things to learn – every day is a new and exciting challenge! A parent gave me a notebook saying ‘it always seems impossible until it’s done’ at the end of the first year of operation, and this is how it feels. To be able to reflect is amazing. How quickly we grew was also surprising. We weren’t expecting to have to put a class in mid-year. How amazing and willing staff are to go the extra mile has also been refreshing. We have had teachers roll up their sleeves and clean their classrooms at the beginning. It has felt normal and natural, even though we are only three years in.
Do you have any advice for free school heads preparing for their first term of opening?
My advice to free school teachers would be to speak to as many people as possible. I have learned so many things from speaking to other headteachers, going to NSN events, ensuring that I have prepared and anticipated the challenges others have faced.
What would you like to achieve in the next 3 years?
We would love to get a positive Ofsted rating in the next few years. We would like to continue to grow, and we have another build project to develop our second form of entry. We would love to be able to partner with local schools or schools further away to share our ethos and to benefit the wider community.
On my first day of employment, I was the only person there and there was a big sense of ‘how do you do this?’ but every day has been a unique challenge. For example, how do you build a website? How do you get an email address? I have seen every little element of the daily operation of running a school. We could write a book on it – it has been a privilege.