NSN Hub Member Interview: Jonathan Wilden, Coombe Wood School

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.

Recently we spoke to Jonathan Wilden, CEO of Folio Education Trust, who kindly shared with us his experience opening and growing Coombe Wood School, and implementing his vision of a school where health and fitness takes centre stage.

Coombe Wood is a secondary school in Croydon that opened in 2018. The school provides enhanced sporting opportunities in basketball, netball, football and gymnastics, which are taught by specialist local clubs, and is striving to become the healthiest school in the country. With the help of specialist technology, they are able to track the Health Related Fitness levels of all students.

Tell us about the original idea behind your school

The original idea started in 2014 when I was headteacher of a secondary school in Sutton. The feeling at that time was that all schools should be more outward facing and had to demonstrate that their model of school improvement and curriculum had influence.

The local geography was important. I was working in Sutton and I knew about Croydon – that the options for parents and carers were quite limited. They could send children to private schools or grammar schools but at the time, the state comprehensive sector was not good enough. It was about taking something that we knew would work, and bringing it to these pupils. I knew that there was a market for taking a set curriculum plan into a new provision to provide an excellent educational offer. The opportunity was there!

What is unique about Coombe Wood?

The majority of schools do not serve health-related fitness and we were adamant that every pupil should have the opportunity to be healthy and fit.

You have to think about what young people look for. The cost of a uniform and a sports kit is something to be careful about. We found a company who created a hoodie and from this, we were creating an environment where pupils were happy with what they were wearing, the students enjoy wearing the hoodies at the weekend too.

We use “Health Related Fitness” (HRF) instead of PE, which explores the themes of being brave, working hard, being healthy and being happy. This is to make fitness education more inclusive than a curriculum centred around sport.

As a part of this approach, we use MyZone technology. MyZone asks pupils to wear a heart-rate monitor on the wrist and this measures the maximum heart-rate. There is a movement room where children can see on a large screen, what colour they are working at, which corresponds to their heart rate. Children enter the movement room who are ‘less fit’ but walk out the room winning, as they are rewarded for their own individual efforts. It is about getting rid of the stereotype about pupils who give up too easily, who don’t excel at sports in a normal school environment and it allows pupils to learn about their bodies and to control their feelings.

What has been your biggest challenge so far? What steps have/are you taking to overcome this?

We had a new build – through the eyes of the pupils, it is the most wonderful place to learn. It takes a huge amount of staffing resource to work with the contractors and the biggest drain on our capacity is continuing to grapple with finishing the building. It takes years and years for a school to grow in terms of bushes/plants/grass – there are areas of the site where our pupils cannot go as it is not finished. A free school has to allow the outside landscaping to mature, which could take four to five years.

We have 180 places and over 1000 applications each year. We have not experienced any staff recruitment challenges but a large percentage of our staff are young, due to the thrill of a start-up school. It would be helpful to have had more experienced staff to help guide the school through its growth period.

What steps have you taken to develop the school’s identity?

The HRF is not part of the branding of the school. Your free school may have something that is great, but this does not mean that this will be what you are spotlighting at all moments. Our fitness is something that we get excited about, but it is a tenth of what we market.

Our first year cohort had an imbalance as it was boy-heavy, so in the second year we changed our branding and marketing to focus less on sports. We realised we had compensated too heavily in one direction when we talked about health-related activities. That gender imbalance has now disappeared.

What inspired you to lead a completely new school?

I got to a point in my career where I’d seen different schools do different things in different ways. I felt that was just collecting all this inspiration without dispersing what I had learned. The idea of putting all the best bits in one project was very attractive. I didn’t think through the complexities of building a free school and the amount of time and work that would take (which was probably a good thing!) I just wanted to get the best bits in one place, and felt a moral imperative to do this. I was also mindful of the Croydon context and the fact that this area really needed a good school. I wanted the school to become a community hub for the local people – both students and parents. For example, we built a café in the school with a balcony that overlooks the football pitch, so parents can sit in the warmth whilst their children are playing.

What advice would you give to other free school leaders who are preparing for their first term of opening?

“Sweat the small stuff” – the way people say hello to each other in the morning is important. Staff members should be smiling, because if the pupils see a smile in the morning, it will change their day. Holding doors open for people. Helping people afford uniform. Understanding why people are 30 seconds late – the grind that people forget about. People should understand structure and routine and everyone should know their role.

How do you define success at Coombe Wood? And what would you like to achieve at the school in the next 3 years?

Success to me means if a pupil feels safe in the building and an environment is created where they feel safe and secure. The school will get its first GCSE and A level results in the next three years, which will be a big part of our success. The free school experience is like running a marathon, you get excited but at mile 23 you throw yourself on the floor. When you get the medal, you know it is worth it. I know the pupils are happy and the staff love working at the school.