Free schools at 10: Star 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 the CEO of Star Academies, Sir Hamid Patel CBE. 

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

We recognised that pupils in some of the most disadvantaged parts of the country were not receiving education of good enough quality to remove them from the cycle of underachievement and poverty. We had established a strong educational model at Tauheedul Islam Girls’ High School (TIGHS) that was yielding excellent outcomes and substantially raising girls’ aspirations and improving their life chances. TIGHS had started as a small school, with scarce resources, in terraced housing in Blackburn.  It showed us the possibility of establishing and developing outstanding provision. The free schools programme provided an excellent opportunity to expand this thinking more widely and meet recognised needs. Great schools are engines of social mobility and progression: we wanted more young people to benefit from opportunities that we could provide through the programme.

What was your original vision for Star Academies, and how has it been realised over time?

Our original vision was to develop a national network of outstanding schools to be hubs of excellence in areas of under-performance who would raise standards across their communities. This vision has not changed over time. Star Academies’ commitment to ‘nurturing today’s young people and inspiring tomorrow’s leaders,’ combined with our STAR values of service, teamwork, ambition and respect, underpins all that we do. Quite simply we want to help young people realise their potential, not only in academic terms but also with regard to their character development. We have always been clear that our young people should leave school equipped to make a positive difference within their own communities and in wider contexts. Our academic curriculum is complemented with a wide range of enrichment activities and volunteering opportunities. All our free schools that have been inspected to date have been judged outstanding by Ofsted and their results are consistently excellent. They are over-subscribed with long waiting lists of prospective pupils. This is the result of relentless hard work and determination from everyone involved – staff, pupils and parents. Our free schools have all started life in modest temporary accommodation. Leaders have remained solution-focused as they have managed their moves to permanent sites while providing the highest quality of experience for pupils. Schools are essentially about people, not buildings though, and in a rapidly changing landscape, we have provided first class professional development and training for staff at all points on their professional journey so that their practice is of the highest quality.

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

Have a clear vision as to what you want to achieve and do not underestimate, or be daunted by, the enormity of the task. Opening free schools is not for the faint-hearted. You will have setbacks and will need resilience to weather inevitable storms. Your mistakes will aid your growth if you are a learning organisation, so be honest when you falter and consistently reflect on how to improve your model.

Understand the needs and goals of the community that you aim to serve. Grow steadily and take care of small details at every stage of your organisation’s development.

The process requires energy, knowledge and determination. We could not have achieved all that we have without excellent direction from our trustees and the complete dedication of our projects teams.

You’ve offered a transformative education opportunity in areas where outcomes have traditionally been below national average. Have you seen other schools in your area adapt and evolve since Star schools emerged? 

When outstanding provision becomes evident in an area, it is a great source of motivation for the community, and the winners are children and their parents. Outward facing schools with a commitment to raising standards look to each other to share practice.

Star Academies works in partnership with other schools and trusts, including through the range of programmes offered by our professional development arm, Star Institute. We learn from each other’s practice and celebrate each other’s achievements.  We have seen standards rise in some of the areas we serve where a sense of aspiration is strengthening. We can never fall into the trap of thinking that the job is done though; there is no room for complacency. A focus on excellence has to permeate the work of every school day in day out and characterise interactions in every classroom.

One of the original visions of the free schools programme was to enable more faith schools into the sector. Some of your schools are faith school, some aren’t. What is the biggest difference and how important is that variation to your trust? 

We are extremely proud to be a mixed MAT incorporating a blend of faith schools and secular schools. Our faith schools have some distinctive elements, most notably the opportunities for prayer that our pupils value greatly. However, as a trust we focus in what unites our schools rather than ways in which they are different. All our schools have a strong knowledge-based curriculum, shared values and aspirations. Our staff and pupils meet and work together as one Star family. We aim to create active and responsible British citizens, irrespective of their faith backgrounds.

Does the process of establishing a new school get easier for you with each free school wave? What lessons have you learnt over time since your first free school application? 

The process has become easier as we have developed a model and a route map for the opening of our schools. We started with a theoretical model from which we developed a project plan. Every time we open a school we revise our plan. We have made mistakes along the way and learned from them so each plan is more sophisticated than the previous one. Over time we have developed a small team of people with vast expertise in free school development. We have also become adept at risk assessment so we can anticipate problems and put in place steps to mitigate them. Maintaining and monitoring a risk register is a key element of successful planning.

Staff orientation, induction and training are essential. It is crucial that school staff understand our modus operandi and implement our systems and policies; this requires hands-on support from the central team so that schools are operate with fidelity to our model. 

Free schools are high pressured environments that can seem overwhelming. They start as relatively small schools with a trajectory of growth that has to be planned carefully. As the number of staff increases to accommodate increasing pupil numbers, there is a continuing cycle of on-boarding and adaptation. Attending to wellbeing and work-life balance of individuals and teams really matters and can be difficult to achieve in a new start-up.

We have learned to be honest and transparent with parents and to manage their expectations realistically. It is inevitable that there will be a gap between compelling vision and lived experience when a new school first opens, probably in buildings that are less than ideal. The key thing is to keep reducing this gap, and to focus on the educational model rather than the difficulties of the temporary accommodation.

For instance, one of our outstanding free schools has been in temporary accommodation for five years. It is a wonderful school and its staff are absolutely clear that their excellent provision will not be diminished by ongoing uncertainty as to their eventual home.  

Our purpose-built school premises are vibrant and high quality but they may not be in the place that parents had initially anticipated. My advice is not to make any promises about location unless you have the definite assurance of a specific permanent site.

Are there any critical challenges and differences setting up a primary school in comparison to setting a secondary school and vice versa? What are the key considerations for each?

Our primary and secondary schools are established with the same underpinning values and high expectations. There is a focus on academic achievement, personal development and community service in all our schools, but some of their policies and operating models are different because of the age of the pupils and the curriculum that they follow.

It is important to understand the unique issues relating to primary and secondary education. We have engaged phase-specific specialists to help us develop our models. We did not assume that we would be able to operate highly effective primary schools simply because our secondary schools were successful. We invested resource, for example, in developing our early years model to ensure that we provide children with the very best start so that they have the foundations on which to build.

Staffing needs in primary and secondary schools are different, particularly with regard to subject specialism and this needs to be factored into planning. There are different financial challenges too. The key is to have a detailed understanding of how each phase operates and to develop and embed quality standards for every aspect of their work.

Star operates over multiple regions from London to the Midlands to North West. To what extent are the schools approaches able to be replicated across area, and how much has to be adapted for each local context? 

The same vision and expectations underpin our work, irrespective of location but we are also responsive to the needs of local communities. Different contextual challenges affect areas in which we operate to greater or lesser extents: staff recruitment and retention; primary to secondary school transition; higher education and employment patterns; the nature of disadvantage and civic structures. These all need to be taken into account when establishing schools as integral parts of the community. Our Star family hubs are a good example of how we aim to serve the communities in which we are located by supporting some of the most disadvantaged family members who are experiencing poverty and isolation. We build relationships with our communities: Star is about much more than academic excellence.

What’s next for Star Academies?

We will continue to develop innovative provision through partnerships that address challenges that have often beset our communities for generations. Our focus remains on providing the highest possible quality of education for young people. In the short term, this means continuing relentless work on recovery in the aftermath of disruption caused by the pandemic.  We have also learned a great deal about the potential of EdTech over recent months and we are rethinking our organisational model so that we can capitalise on the potential offered by a hybrid approach to teaching and learning that combines face-to-face and online classrooms. This will spur even greater collaboration and sharing of expertise across our schools.

We are strengthening provision in our five partnership areas by developing an infrastructure that gives them increased autonomy. Cluster-based collaboration will support the development of enrichment experiences for young people.

We have a number of schools in the pipeline in the north of England and we look forward to seeing them open. We are exploring opportunities for other schools and small trusts to join our family within the national direction of travel that recognises the significance of successful trusts as agents of sector-wide school improvement.

You recently announced a partnership with Eton College to open three sixth forms. Do you think this model will be adopted by the sector in years to come?

This is a new and innovative model in which a partnership has been established based on shared values and goals. A great deal of background work has been undertaken to map cold spots in which the colleges can potentially make a huge difference to young people’s opportunities to progress to prestigious universities. The significant experience and additional funding brought by Eton to the partnership complement Star’s track record of opening highly successful free schools. I think that the model may be replicated elsewhere but it is important to recognise that this is not an ‘off the peg’ solution and it requires substantial financial investment.