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 Mel Shute, Headteacher of Trumpington Park Primary School, a primary school in Cambridgeshire that opened in 2017 as a part of Cambridge Primary Education Trust.
Tell us about the original idea behind your school.
“We are a presumption free school, so the school came about because of a growth in the area. There was knowledge that there would be a large number of children looking for school places. So there was no unique template for the school, it was due to the need for school places.”
What is unique about Trumpington Park?
“We are located on the edge of Cambridge, and our cohort is very diverse. We have a huge international representation, with 38 different nationalities in our school. We do a lot around diversity to make sure our curriculum reflects that, and to ensure our children understand the wider world and the impact they can have on it.
We are about ‘community’ and making sure our children are encompassed into it. We try and embrace the wonderful opportunities that are around us. We have links to science, art projects which prompted a mothitarium to be built to help local insect populations – we do lots of work on eco-diversity, which is something a bit different. We make sure children feel part of their direct community, and that links to those groups and opportunities that exist within our school.”
What steps have you taken to develop the school’s identity?
“When we first opened, we had a set of values that drove what we thought would be right for our community. This lost its purpose after a few years, when we started to learn about the characteristics of our area. We spent time with our community developing our values moving forward, and we now live and breathe these values of togetherness, sense of community, pride, positivity and success. These have all developed as our cohort has grown.”
What has been the biggest challenge that you have faced so far, and what steps have you taken to overcome it?
“We opened with 32 children and are now at nearly 340 which is still growing, but there was a challenge in numbers at the beginning. The challenge has been to develop our reputation as a really great place for people to be.
Covid-19 has also been a major issue, as we were growing as school and then had two years in lockdown. The biggest problem has been with staff and building a team, as we relied upon virtual meetings. There have been limited times where we’ve been able to pull everyone together as a new staff team, which has had an impact on building a team ethos. This is difficult in school that’s growing and bringing in new staff and expertise all the time. Personal connection is really important when growing a team.”
How do you define success at Trumpington Park?
“Excellence in teaching is a key indicator of success. We invest in providing our staff with strong professional development. We have a very mixed student body, with high EAL, relatively high pupil premium, so we have to think very carefully about how we enable progress and achievement for all of our children. We want our children to have a great range of opportunities, we want them to have the chance to experience things beyond the curriculum that they wouldn’t have had access to if they hadn’t attended our school.”
What inspired you to lead a brand new school?
“I was working at one of the trust’s schools before. I have always had a passion for providing professional development for staff, and I was looking for the next challenge. I just thought it would be a great opportunity to start something brand new and make sure you’re really successful with that. A chance to make an impact on huge groups of children in a new area - it’s a great position to be in, to mould a school and mould the journey of the school.”
Has anything surprised you since opening the new school?
“One thing that I hadn’t quite anticipated was that we very much get first siblings, rather than children from families who have had experience of school life. We have had to do lots of work with families about what school is about, and for our international families what school in the UK is about.”
What advice would you give to other free school heads who are preparing for their first term of opening?
“Make connections in your locality and with others who have ‘been there and done that’, someone who has been through that journey of understanding something that’s brand new. I would definitely advise to go to the meetings that are housed by NSN. I found it really helpful to meet other people and talk through some of the issues we were sharing. It’s useful to get advice on what’s really important to focus on, especially in the first year. It was helpful to have some insight on the right things to drive the school forward, and what things we could push to the back burner for a bit.
I would advise to focus on really selling your school and make sure stakeholders of school are embedded with what you do, as well as offering that challenge that drives the growth of the school. Make sure the parents are there and part of that journey.
As well as this, it’s important to make sure that what you do in first year you can also do in your second and third. You can throw everything you’ve got at the first cohort in the first year, but what you start has to become the norm, to be fair on the next children that come in, so make sure it’s achievable.”
What would you like to achieve in the next 3 years at Trumpington Park?
“We have been expecting Ofsted for a while now, so we really want a successful Ofsted.
Ultimately, though, it’s about our children. Within the next 3 years we will have a couple of cohorts going into secondary school. We want them to be prepared and ready for that next journey, we want them to have a huge level of achievement that we can drive. We also want to see improved progress data for our children, so we can show that we are making a difference in our locality.”
We’d like to thank NSN Hub member Mel Shute for taking part in this interview, and telling us about the rewarding and challenging aspects of opening a free school. The NSN Hub brings free school leaders together to learn, support and inspire one another. It provides a space to connect and find solutions to the issues which come up from running a new school. If you are a free school leader and would be interested in joining, would like to contribute or if you have any questions, please get in contact here.