Free schools at 10: King's Leadership Academy Warrington 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 Shane Ierston, CEO of The Great Schools Trust.    

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

The opportunity it presented to make a difference - all parents deserve access to an outstanding education for their children.  At the age of eleven I was fortunate to have attended a good secondary school. Having previously underachieved in a low aspiring inner-city primary, my parents fought hard to ensure that I did not move on to the designated secondary, which at the time was the worst in the city and was later forced to close.  Although I didn’t realise it back then, this decision was life changing.  It was this path which inspired my belief in the education system and its power to shape the life chances of children.  Without a successful education people cannot provide for themselves or contribute to the wider community, having witnessed the effect of this first-hand on the lives of the children from where I grew up, I became committed to ensuring that other children reached their potential.  By the age of eighteen, seven out of the sixteen boys in my primary school class had sadly died from a range of easily avoidable circumstances.  The common factor in this tragedy was that their education did not provide them with the means to escape the environment in which they grew up.  To equal this childhood mortality rate, we have to return to the Victorian era and the 1890’s, terrifyingly, this was not the 1890’s it was actually the 1990’s. It is from this experience that I was driven to become teacher and later an academy Principal.  After becoming disillusioned by what I was seeing in education, I felt that in order to make a genuine difference, a new paradigm and fresh set of values were needed.  Fortunately, I was in the right place at the right time and the free school movement provided that opportunity.

What was your original vision for King’s Leadership Academy Warrington, and how has it been realised over time?

The original vision was for every child to be a successful citizen in tomorrow’s world.  We wanted something ambitious, reflecting high expectations that framed a future state that would help drive social mobility.  Over time the vision evolved and became “To develop in each of our student the academic skills, intellectual habits, qualities of character and leadership traits necessary to succeed at all levels and become successful citizens in tomorrow's world”.  Since our opening in 2012, this has defined who we are and what we aspire to achieve.  Our goals and intentions remain focussed on developing an exciting culture which refutes that intelligence is fixed and that children are products of their postcode.  At King’s Warrington, we believe that every child can be successful if they are given the right environment to do so, in realising this we empower our staff to do the right things, we focus heavily on their development and wellbeing, whilst maintaining a relentless belief in our children’s potential.

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

I don’t think there is a single point of success which we look back on and say, yes, that defines who we are.  We are constantly striving to improve, we are relentless in that pursuit, I think in education it’s more about the way ‘rewarding moments’ coalesce which make the journey itself special.   Having the privilege of standing shoulder to shoulder with an incredible team and hearing them say, ‘we made that happen’ brings the greatest reward.  One of the early challenges we set ourselves was to create a 100 years of tradition in 5, a number of stories came together along that journey which still influence our thinking to this day.

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

Look at what the best are doing and use that as your starting point, not your end in mind.

There will be times when it feels that nothing is working.  In those moments, return to your mission and take strength from the fact that your bid was successful because it was the best in the round.

Have fun. Don’t expect it to go to plan, enjoy the problem solving and remember that every day you win, you are changing the world.

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

I think we must be ready to grasp opportunities presented by the emergence of artificial intelligence in education.  In the same way that the internet revolutionised the information age, quantum computing and other innovations over the next decade will transform our approach to teaching and learning.  Many of the things we take for granted could disappear, given the speed at which information can be shared our understanding of knowledge may become obsolete.  Any vision for the next 10 years in education needs to take stock of the way we measure understanding, memorisation is not learning, the concept of exams will likely become defunct, we will need solutions to these challenges otherwise our education systems risk being left behind.  Given that the Free school programme was founded on innovation, it may be ideally placed to respond to the a world we can’t yet imagine.

The school motto, ‘Credimus’, is Latin for ‘We Believe’. What does this mean for pupils in the context of King’s Leadership Academy Warrington?

It means they can expect every teacher, site worker or associated member of staff to go the extra mile in the interest of the child.   In return, we teach and expect our children to show resilience. We encourage this through a set of moral imperatives, affectionately known as the ASPIRE code. Essentially, these are ‘true north’ principles which children can default back to when in unfamiliar situations. 

What inspired you to develop a leadership curriculum, and why was it needed for your pupils?

We were determined not to become another ‘exam factory’, the GCSE is not the epitome of 5 million years of neurological evolution. The human brain is intended for much more than sitting exams. To be successful in life, academic traits are only part of much bigger picture. For example, qualifications might help you secure a job interview but it will ultimately be a person’s character which makes them successful. We feel very strongly that character can be taught, the way we practice this is through the application of our leadership curriculum. From Year 7-11 every child participates in a compulsory programme to develop their character, the development of non-cognitive skills is given as much emphasis as the teaching of academic subjects.  We feel that the success of our students in the academic areas, is a direct consequence of our focus on their non-cognitive skills such as building resilience, self-awareness, professionalism and respect etc.

What is the greatest challenge when creating an innovative curriculum, and how has it evolved over time?

I think the greatest challenge is overcoming the reluctance to change/the belief that what we already have is good enough, closely followed by the motivation to continue when you realise just how difficult the task is going to be. A common mistake is to focus on the content, cognitive science and outcomes etc. at the expense of aligning the staff who will be undertaking the design. Once the staff are on board, the next step in terms of identifying what the students need should come from an interpretation of the mission/values.  This is where leaders need to be brave, and make decision which are based on their own context not external accountability, had we gone for the latter back in 2012 we would never have chosen character and leadership as our joint specialisms.  Over time we have adapted the content to make it accessible to the widest proportion of students, it was always our intention that every child would follow a rich EBacc curriculum, regardless of starting point.  To accomplish this, we identified a sensible balance between cognitive and non-cognitive components of the curriculum.

With such an innovative ethos, how do you recruit and train staff which fit the culture and expectations of your school? Was it difficult in the early years?

It remains difficult, even to this day.  Around 90% of senior leadership time is dedicated to staff development and recruitment.  Given that innovation comes entirely from our staff, you could argue that a figure of 90% is still too low.  When recruiting, it is always done against our values, we believe the rest can be taught on the job.  As a result, the selection process is untraditional in that it actively ‘weeds out’ independent individuals in favour of those who operate interdependently.  Once staff have been appointed, they are invited to a multistage induction programme.  This begins with a residential experience at an outdoor pursuit centre to immerse our new staff in the values and our leadership-based ethos.  Summer training is mandatory and prepares colleagues form their arrival in September.  Throughout the year, the academy finishes half-day on a Friday, this time is dedicated to staff development, equating to 20 days annually, this contrasts with the standard 5 INSET days.  The academy has a slightly longer school day Mon – Fri to ensure students still receive the correct amount of instruction.

King’s Leadership Academy Warrington is a founding member of the EdTech Demonstrator Programme – how important is blended learning at the school?

Digital systems underpin our ‘Classroom to Cloud’ initiative, the foundation of which began in 2012 when every child was issued with an electronic device on entry to the school.  We have continued this approach to ensure digital equality and as part of our attempt to create a non-selective state school with a private school ethos.

Following both Covid 19 lockdowns, cloud-based systems were activated seamlessly to create a completely virtual school, front loaded with 2 weeks of pedagogical training and support packages for staff, students and parents, including wellbeing and mental health programmes. The virtual school went live on 18th March 2020, 2 days prior to enforced closures. Attendance online averaged 98% for all year groups with wrap around pastoral care supporting our most disadvantaged. Daily lessons used Zoom during lockdown, offering synchronous teaching with interactive feedback.  Following this a hybrid approach was introduced, this allows us to actively engage learners isolating at home while their peers are taught physically on site.  Robust systems operated across both lockdowns, meaning that very few gaps in learning occurred as a result of the pandemic.  A number of innovations emerged later which have promoted a better normal in our approach to teaching, training and electronic communication with our community.