Free schools at 10: XP 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 XP CEO Gwyn ap Harri and XP Gateshead co-founders Mark Lovatt & Martin Said.

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

We saw High Tech High and Expeditionary Learning schools in the USA and we couldn’t just go back to what we were doing. Students at these schools articulated their learning in a sophisticated and purposeful way. We asked ourselves whether our pupils back home could do this. The answer was, at that point, a resounding, ‘No.’

We figured the only way we could replicate this work in England was not through existing schools but by creating a new one from scratch. Although we were not the likeliest of free school founders, the programme allowed us the freedom to establish a school which measured pupils beyond academic outcomes, so that our students to become beautiful people, create beautiful work and make the world a better place.

We wrote about this more in our book, “How We XP”.

A signature element of XP is study through cross-subject Learning Expeditions. How does this benefit and develop pupils academically and socially?

Students make connections between their learning that they would not necessarily make, and with a curriculum that has threads running through every expedition of diversity/belonging, social justice and the climate emergency, students understand that they are important and that they can affect the change that they want to see in their world.

It is important to note that none of this would be possible without crew, our pastoral system which underpins everything that we do. If we get Crew right, we get everything right. Crew and community meetings enable students to express who they are through praise, apology, pledges and stands Crews of 12-13 meet for extended periods of time every day to support and challenge each other in a familial relationship where the success of every crew member is the ultimate goal.

What was your original vision for the free schools within the XP trust, and how has this vision been realised over time?

Our Trust has grown organically over time. We didn’t have a vision as such, but we followed the design process to where we are now. We opened XP East next to XP to show how easy it is to scale things up. We are replicating this with XP Gateshead, which opened this month!

There are now five existing Primary Schools in Doncaster which have joined our trust organically, one by one as they approached us. As we’ve grown the Trust has now become a cross-phase professional development network for all our schools and anyone who wants to work with us. We strongly believe in the power of collaboration.

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

First and foremost, seeing the growth in character of students and following them through to graduation. When we see our pupil success we know they’ve reached their post-school destination by exploring and expressing who they are, respectfully, through their work.  

While our inspirations are many, we’ve developed our model from scratch so it’s incredibly gratifying knowing that it works on all fronts; High grades, high attendance, massive demand from parents, no permanent exclusions, outstanding Ofsted reports, financially sound. From the school’s inception it was important that this model worked for all students. We wanted to create a school that was inclusive and worked for all kinds of students: high performing, vulnerable and everyone in between.

There are two open XP free schools which are both located in Doncaster. To what extent is your approach with this school in Gateshead tailored to the new community you’re entering into and to what extent is it dictated by the tried and tested model?

The decision to open a school in Gateshead is not accidental. Gateshead was chosen specifically because of our knowledge of the area in the trust, and the similarity in socioeconomic make-up and therefore the cohort of the Doncaster free schools. But more importantly than that because we are passionate about families in Gateshead being able to have this type of education for their children.

We have high fidelity to the Trust model but also a willingness to build on Trust strength and what trust has learned over the years. In a sense we are XP 3.0, so we want to develop on the original concept of the XP schools. We are benefitting from a lot of thinking and development work on curriculum (ASP and MSA) although we will be contextualising curriculum and expeditions to local context. Just as is the case in Doncaster, we hope to make Gateshead a new hub for XP and to ‘infect the system’.

What has been the biggest challenge of opening a free school in a new area?

Gateshead Local Authority and the DfE have been incredibly helpful and indeed excited to be getting a new and in many ways different school in their area, but the timescale was incredibly tight. This project has only happened because everyone has pulled together in the same direction.

XP Gateshead was approved to open earlier this year, and are on course to open in September. A new school can take years from approval to opening. How have you mobilised in such a short timeframe?

It has been helpful to have a model to build on and Trust support where much of the documentation/policies etc. have already been in place. And the Trust having completed previous free school applications many times has meant we could build from those experiences. It has been has been invaluable having access to experienced leaders with high fidelity to the XP model and good understanding of how to put this model into practice.

Although the XP trust has opened free schools prior to XP Gateshead, there are many new dynamics which we’ve had to work around, especially when opening a free school in a new location. It has been key to have people "on the ground" with good working knowledge of the local area and with existing relationships with stakeholders. The speed at which we’ve moved has been aided by a real partnership between trust/LA/DFE and willingness to work together to get the school opened and real support from all three (Trust and executive team) and also LA and DFE local delivery team and a community who very much wanted to engage. All of this in addition to support from NSN at every stage of process, has showed the power of collaborative working. 

We’ve been very fortunate that we secured a building which could utilise (almost) immediately. This is critical as securing a site can be one of the most challenging and time consuming process’ of pre-opening.

How has your experience of setting up a free school changed from establishing the original XP free school to now?

This is not just draft 3 of opening a school, but after 7 years of XP School opening it as also draft 8 of having a Year 7 cohort. There is so much professional learning that we have been able to draw from that has helped us this time around. Along with GAP as CEO the authors of the application were new, (MLO and MSA), and the strength of the application is testament to the great work and foundation that has been set in Doncaster over the last seven years. Unlike previous free school applications we’ve submitted, in Gateshead there was an existing school building; we have had to be clear from the outset that we were different to what existed there previously and that we are a school for all of Gateshead and the surrounding area.

There have been more unique challenges opening XP Gateshead which we, as a trust, had not previously faced.  The application form/process is even more rigorous than in previous years. The need to make the case for basic need was a much larger part of the process and this took strong coordination between the trust, local authority and regional schools commissioner’s office. New School Network mock processes were invaluable to the trust and helped us prepare for interview with DfE. It would also be impossible to ignore the impact of COVID which placed many unforeseen pressures on the process, especially in terms of time and the pace we have had to work to be ready to open.

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

There will always be a need for new schools whilst we have a growing population. New schools need to be placed where they are needed through basic need and/or chronic underperformance in an area. The latter has not always been the case nationally and the North-East for example has not benefited from successful new schools in the same way as other areas of the country.

The free schools programme has yet to benefit the North East as much as the South East. How important is it for XP to work in areas typically characterised as ‘left behind’?

It is important for XP to work full-stop.

We want parents to demand this type of education for their children and to affect systemic change. It is highly likely that this model would be even more successful in leafy suburbs if exam grades are how you judge success, but in Doncaster and now in Gateshead we are proving that the segregation of children by any means, whether setting/streaming or selective grammar schools or quality of school by postcode lottery is something that can be overcome.

Our students and our community are stronger because of their differences and the range of backgrounds from which they come and we judge success not just by the excellent progress that students make, but also by the growth of their character and the destinies and destinations that students shape for themselves by working hard, getting smart and being kind.

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

Be brave, if you are certain that your vision will make a difference to the lives of young people then have the courage to stick to your convictions as there will be trials and tribulations along the way.

Know what you’re playing with and the rules you are given. Do not take them for granted, but do not be a slave to them either. Lots of schools do not take advantage of their autonomy.