From knowledge-based curriculums to project-based learning, we know that free schools are diverse. This diversity indicates a great capacity for schools to be tailored to their community. Some communities have an appetite for parent-involvement in the activities of their children; other communities demand schools which are focused on developing skills that are needed in industry.
Most schools highly value a close engagement with their local community. Logically, the more a school can identify and respond to the needs of a community, the more the school becomes integrated into the community, the more local support it gains. It can even become a community hub, a place to foster greater local community activity.
But, since the first free schools were set up in 2011, many have been new institutions in their local area. As with any new large establishment, it usually takes time to gain local confidence and for the community to acknowledge the enrichment the school can bring.
How do free schools become centres of communities?
Before applying to the Department for Education (DfE) to set up a free school, different applicant groups need to understand their local context. Then, they need to develop a tailored plan for creating a positive impact on this community. Here, the DfE requires that groups assess the need for places and take stock of the particular forms of disadvantage that affect the local community in which the school will be based. Groups should be committed to tackling local deprivation and have strategies in place for doing so.
If a group is interested in creating a school that is a community hub, the first step is to engage with the community. This requires more than meetings with the local authority (LA), local councillors and MPs. Applicant groups will have to engage in a range of formal and informal settings to build momentum and enthusiasm for their proposed school. This would include activities such as meeting parents and carers at local playgrounds, supermarkets and hosting events. Initial engagement is highly recommended to capture the social need; engaging on personal levels with the community will facilitate an adequate tailoring of your educational approach.
While in the pre-opening stage (after the free school proposal has been approved by the DfE), groups are required to conduct a statutory consultation as one prerequisite of securing a funding agreement. This is a formal process to collect the views of the local community about the particularities of the project in the format of a Section 10 Consultation. For a school to integrate into the local community, trusts will want to consider a thorough engagement process and listen carefully to the feedback received as a result of the consultation. The Cheadle Hulme Primary School for instance considered and adapted the catchment criteria in response to local concerns about the location of the school. Best practice in consultations facilitates community input in the plans of the school and demonstrates to the community that their views have contributed to the formation of the school.
While the formal consultation procedure influences the Secretary of State decision of entering into a funding agreement with the proposed school, it is more than just a box to tick on the way to opening. The consultation is also an opportunity to deepen the relationship with the community.
But securing future support is not something that is earnt once for all. It is an ongoing process.
How do free schools maintain engagement with the community?
Setting up a free school and integrating it into a local area is not effortless and takes maintenance and flexibility.
There are many amazing community-integrated free schools that I have come across in my time at NSN. Though not at all an exhaustive list, the free schools named below have exemplary programmes that have cultivated close relationships with their communities.
Many free schools share their space for community purposes. The Cambourne Village College, for instance, runs community cinema nights. Reflections on this shared space overwhelmingly indicate that it fosters a stronger sense within the local area. The Mendip School has opened a community café ‘The Greenfield Café’ in order to build vocational skills amongst pupils. Similarly, the Tauheedul Islam Boys’ High School, Malcolm Arnold Preparatory School and Eden Girls’ School Coventry have established creative ways such as the ‘Passport to the Moon’ to stimulate children’s community service.
At the University of Cambridge Primary School, children are taught to get involved with community projects. The school engaged, for instance, with the Eddington and Cambridge community in order to celebrate the LGBT history month. In a local article about the school’s involvement in the celebration, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, Professor Stephen J. Toope is quoted saying that "LGBT+ History Month has shown what we can achieve when we all work together with the common goal of creating the Cambridge we want to live, work in and study in".
Some schools are dedicated to strong involvement from parents and carers in the school as the means by which they develop strong relationships within and beyond the school gates. Through weekly newsletters, an open door policy, parent-organised extracurricular clubs, workshops for parents, parents assisting in classes and many other programmes, schools such as, The Heights Primary, the Galleywall Primary City of London Academy, The Family School London, La Fontaine Academy and Lanchester Community Free School are cultivating parents' involvement in schools. Their close contact with parents has enabled them to foster a real sense of community.
Finally, the Big Life Group set up two schools in areas ranked within 10% of the most deprived communities in England. They understood that most children were either non-English speakers or have English as an additional language. Their response was to tailor the curriculums of the Longsight Community Primary and the Unity Community Primary, such as teaching Reception classes partly in Urdu to help non-English speakers make the fastest possible progress. Moreover, the trust has developed a close relationship with the community by actively supporting parents in developing skills and learning English. Here, the two schools have become community hubs, they have designed their educational programmes to have a positive impact beyond higher achievement for pupils. It is also about improving the communities where their students live.
All these schools embrace the support and involvement of the community. They are not only integrated into the local community but are an active part in communities' development.