For principal designates (PDs) taking up post at a new free school opening in 2020, it can be easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day details of their school, whether this be their site, pupil recruitment or ensuring they have a functioning internet connection. PDs need to be able to see beyond these immediate obstacles so that they can remind themselves of why they first embarked on their free school journey and what they have to look forward to in their first year of opening.
For day two of our 2020 openers event, we could think of no better way to remind PDs of the pay-off for all of their hard work than by getting a keynote speaker who was sat exactly where they were twelve months before. Linda Culling is the principal of The Deanery CE Academy in Swindon which opened in 2019. Like all free school leaders, she has certainly had her share of highs and lows. From using the nearby Waitrose as a personal office-space to finding eleven caravans in the school carpark one morning, Linda has taken everything thrown at her in her stride.
Linda made sure to capitalise on the creative license granted to her as the leader of a new free school from the very beginning. As the school’s diocese was the first to declare a climate emergency, it seemed fitting to make the new school uniform out of recycled plastic bottles. Even the absence of security alarms in the library was no accident. As Linda puts it, the worst that could happen is that a student steals a book to read. Whether it is through sustainability or building trust, Linda has worked hard to ensure The Deanery CE Academy is a hub for community as well as learning. The founding vision of their new school should always be at the forefront of a PD’s mind.
This idea of teaching students in a way that goes beyond the curriculum set the tone for the rest of the day’s sessions. Sebastien Chapleau, founder and former head teacher of the free school La Fontaine Academy (LFA), in Bromley, South London led this part of the day. There was one overarching principle that Sebastien sought to drive home to those in attendance: vision. This is crucial to achieving the distinction between surviving and thriving. For Sebastien, opening a free school was a way for him to establish a community in which he hopes his students will be inspired to strive for a better world. Having grown up in the “banlieues” of Paris and being the first person to go to university in his family, Sebastien is no stranger to the barriers that exist in education for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Like Linda’s alarm-free library, Sebastien knew that the core values he embedded into the ethos of LFA would help it become a microcosm of the kind of world that he wanted to live in. Schools are places in which every cross-section of society are brought together, regardless of faith or culture, and this applies as much to parents and staff as it does to students. Where many schools teach ‘stranger danger’ to their pupils, at LFA, students are taught that it is good to know those around you and to be open to meeting new types of people. Sebastien argues that the streets are always safer when you know your neighbours and that we achieve this by teaching pupils this from a young age. Another way that the school challenges the status quo is through its ‘Wear It Pink’ days. As well as raising money for charity, this is also a great way to get students to embrace the colour pink regardless of their gender.
There was one question that resonated throughout all the sessions that day: “Is your school measuring what you value?” While PDs may feel like there are many things they cannot know until the school opens, having a clear vision in mind is one way they can set about crafting their school from day one. When establishing their new school’s vision, PDs should not only consider their students, but everyone in the community the school will serve and beyond.