For a new series NSN is running, we’re talking to the leaders of recently opened free schools to hear how they’ve implemented their vision and confronted the challenges of opening a new school.
We recently spoke to Hilary Manton, Business Manager at Wildern Academy Trust. Working with the Executive Headteacher Mary Louise Litton, they led the opening of two recently opened free schools in Hampshire, including Boorley Park Primary School, which opened in 2019, and Deer Park, a secondary school which opened in 2021.
What was the original idea behind the schools?
“To meet basic need in the area. The first academy in the trust, Wildern School, is a large 11-16 school that was oversubscribed every year. A lot of new building work was going on in the area, and it became clear that more school places would be needed.
Originally, the Department for Education (DfE) approved Deer Park to be an all-through school, from primary to secondary. We made a lot of progress on the planning for that; however, issues with land meant there were long delays, so we wrote a second bid for a new primary and the first bid applied only to the secondary phase, creating two separate schools. Both were very local to each other.”
What was the vision for Deer Park?
“We wanted Deer Park to have its own identity, but with the same ethos as the existing secondary school, Wildern School, because the school was well known within the community. It was difficult to establish the culture at the new school - there is no natural community, located in the middle of a field. Now it definitely has its own ethos and culture, and as it is just Year 7s currently, it is very different to Wildern School, which has five year groups, and is very large, with over 1900 students.”
What makes the culture so special?
“The school is small and nurturing, with a small number of staff. There is a genuine culture for everyone to muck-in.”
What would you like to achieve in the next 3 years at the two schools?
“I would like to see them grow to full capacity, which might be more difficult for the primary school. I would also like to see the two schools settle within the community and influence the new communities as they grow around them.”
Has anything surprised you since opening the schools?
“There was a risk with COVID-19 that the school wouldn’t be ready in time for this school year, but surprisingly, the site was handed over to us on 1st July. However, three hours after it was handed over, we received a phone call informing us this brand new school had flooded! So that was something we had to deal with unexpectedly. We were also lulled into a false sense of security having opened the primary school first, as the secondary required a lot more work over the holidays. But it all paid off!”
What were the main challenges you faced since opening?
“COVID-19 was a huge challenge because it meant we had lots of problems with staffing. We had to share staff between schools to ensure we had cover. The teachers, particularly at the primary school, have also fed back to me that, because of the circumstances of the past couple of years, the pupils are extremely unsettled. There are high levels of anxiety that the staff haven’t seen before, which has been challenging.”
What steps have you taken to develop the school’s identity?
“COVID-19 restrictions meant we weren’t able to have open days for the secondary school, so since opening we have tried to hold visits for the parents and the public, as well as open evenings for Year 7s that will be coming up next year, to try and establish the school’s identity and share what we have achieved so far.
It is difficult to establish an identity with just a small number of students, but we are also very active on social media to try and develop the identity, which will continue to grow and grow. In addition, the further sports facilities that are being built on the site will enhance and develop the school’s identity, as it will be a local hub for the community and used by the local football team.”
How do you define success at the schools?
“Success means that we are full; from a financial point of view we need to be at full capacity. I also think reputation in the area is a good indicator of success, and it will support recruitment. It’s also vital that the pupils and parents are happy and satisfied, which they are in bucket loads at the moment.”
What advice would you give to free school leaders who are in preparing for their first term of opening?
“Imagine that the unimaginable will happen. There will be uncertainties. Also, remember that whilst you may know something isn’t right, parents won’t necessarily know. For example, we unfortunately had the wrong colour exercise books for maths, but these issues really don’t matter. Also remember that what you can do with the first cohort, you may not be able to maintain as the school grows. It is easy to give all your time and attention to the first cohort.”