Free schools at 10: Derby Pride Academy uncut

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 Karen Hayes, Principal of Derby Pride Academy.  

What first inspired you to get involved with the free schools programme?

We were inspired to get involved with the free schools programme as a way of increasing the diversity of educational offer in Derby City.  The application was made by a mainstream Trust School, Derby Moor Community Sports College, the leadership of which was keen to improve the outcomes of pupils who would benefit from a smaller, more specialised alternative educational offer.  At that time the only alternative provision offer in the city was the local authority maintained pupil referral unit whose offer was primarily vocational based.

We saw an opportunity to offer other mainstream schools in the city an alternative to permanent exclusion, with a particular focus on providing level 2 qualifications. Our main focus being to offer a mainstream curriculum in an alternative, more humanistic and person centred setting. 

The free school programme offered an ideal opportunity and framework to support the opening of a new school.

What was your original vision for Derby Pride Academy, and how has it been realised over time?

Although it has taken some time, we are now central to of the city’s behaviour strategy and so our vision of working collegiately for the benefit of all young people across the city has been realised.  Our principal is the chair of the city behaviour strategy and the opportunity area inclusion subcommittee, and plays a central part in helping to shape the city inclusion agenda. 

Levels of permanent and fixed term exclusion in Derby City were at their highest since recording of these statistics commenced. This was putting significant pressure on the available alternatives in the city, and having detrimental impact on the cities available high needs funding block.  As a result of the behaviour strategy permanent exclusion has reduced exponentially.  Derby Pride Academy is central to the success of the strategy and is proud to have supported every secondary school in the city with alternative placements to reduce exclusion. 

We continue to develop our curriculum to provide level 2 qualifications and continue to see outstanding progress and attainment for our context of school since inception.

What has been the most rewarding moment since opening your free school?

We are rewarded every time an ex-pupil returns or makes contact to thank us for the positive impact we have had on their future.

We were extremely proud to be the first AP Free School in the Country to receive an outstanding grade from Ofsted in 2014.  Our work was again recognised by Ofsted as Outstanding at our 2nd inspection in 2019.

We have provided support to many pre-opening and newly opened AP Free Schools.  We have built excellent relationships with many of these schools.  For us it is rewarding to see how our support has helped other schools and their leaders develop their offer.

What advice would you give to somebody else embarking on their free school journey?

The most useful piece of advice to give would be to consult widely and work collaboratively, particularly with mainstream partners.

By building strong networks we are supported to keep our standards high by inviting our mainstream colleagues to quality assurance our provision extensively.  It is very easy in our kind of setting to lower your expectations because of the level of challenge from pupils you are regularly exposed to.  We aspire to mainstream expectations delivered in a different way.  We still have rules, we still challenge inappropriate behaviour and we still aim high.

What would you like the free schools programme to look like in 10 years’ time?

At present, alternative provision and SEND free school applications are very different and so this is something that needs to change: the financial barriers that exist when opening an alternative provision free school need to be removed to ensure parity between opening an alternative provision free school and a SEND free school.

Speaking from an AP perspective, I would like to see a more targeted approach to the programme in identifying areas of greatest need.  Conversion to AP free schools could also support good unregulated or independent AP provision to be compliant.

What is the greatest difference between the education you provide which mainstream settings don’t?

Our vision of offering level 2 qualifications means that we strive to offer a mainstream curriculum; however, it is our approach to the delivery of the education that differs from a mainstream setting.   Lessons are shorter to help in maintaining focus.  Unstructured time is limited; even lunchtime has structured activity such as gym club, radio production and film club available to keep pupils engaged throughout the day.  

Our core beliefs of empathy, humanistic approaches to managing behaviour, unconditional positive regard and genuineness are at the centre of our ethos.  Our behaviour expectations are such that there is almost always an opportunity for reparation rather than punitive sanctions.  Every day is a new day focussed on positive progress.  Rewards and the acknowledgment of positives are central to our ethos.

Communication with parents and carers is very important to building relationships.  We contact parents or carers every day with details of how the young person has fared.  For some parents, positive praise has been a rare occurrence at the young person’s mainstream setting.  Hearing even small successes goes a long way to building strong relationships with parents and the young person as well.

There is a strong emphasis on personal development.  Our programme contains some very hard-hitting topics delivered in a way that our pupils understand.  Careers advice and guidance is very bespoke to the individual, with levels of support differing according to need.

What were the core considerations when designing a curriculum which caters to the varying needs of your pupils? 

We want all pupils to thrive in their studies. To achieve this fundamental objective, the curriculum is designed to have a clear focus to learning in each lesson. The purpose of this is:

  • to allow pupils to acquire the necessary knowledge about the topical era;
  • to enable pupils to be more accurate and creative in assessed pieces of work;
  • to improve pupils’ cognitive function – thus, learning will be more effective.

We put a lot of training and support in place for our small team of teaching staff to gain expertise outside of their specialisms; this in turn increases what we are able to offer.

How do you work with businesses and local partners to support pupils for life after education?

Throughout their education with us, pupils have access to a wide range of information and individual guidance to help them choose the best option for when they leave school. They take part in a variety of activities designed to provide them with many meaningful encounters with employers and the world of work, such as visiting speakers from business, education and training providers, Alumni talks, visits to post-16 education and training providers, CV workshops and mock interviews, STEM subject visits and activities and 1:1 guidance interviews with a Level 6 qualified Careers Adviser and the school's Careers Leader.

How does the school benefit from its partnership with Derby County Football Club?

Our relationship is with Derby County Community Trust, the charitable arm of the Football Club.   We work with Derby County Community Trust to engage and sustain learning for vulnerable and challenging young people, utilising their network of expertise to provide targeted intervention for our pupils. Our pupils are proud to be affiliated with the city’s football club.

Very recently we have collaborated on a new Twilight AP Intervention offer.  This is a very intense programme of support for young people at serious risk of permanent exclusion.  The six-week programme is a mix of academic lessons, personal development, 1:1 mentoring and physical activity.  The Community Trust are particularly interested in understanding the impact of physical activity as a starter or at the end of each day.  The pilot programme has been very successful and will continue with a new cohort of young people in September 2021.

With little consensus around what good AP looks like, how important is it that you share best practice with other AP schools? How do you go about doing so? 

We utilise the varying networks across the country to draw from the examples of best practice whilst providing our own expertise to support other alternative provision settings. 

We use social media and our website extensively to showcase our offer, and quite often will be approached via these mediums to support other schools.

Although we understand that there is little consensus around what good AP looks like, it is our opinion that there are a number of mandatory elements to AP that are good indications of a successful provision.  English, mathematics and reading as well as attendance are elements that follow the pupils throughout their educational journey, and as such provide an excellent baseline tool to measure progress.