On the train between London and Norwich, we wondered: how has The Free School Norwich been able to perform so well in terms of pupil progress, being in the top 3% of schools in England in 2016 and 2018? Is there a secret formula to their success?
After talking to Tania Sidney-Roberts, Headteacher at The Free School Norwich, we saw and grasped a capital ingredient to this secret formula: working together as a community.
Since its opening in 2011, the school has been working with several organisations across the community; they have collaborated closely with the Norwich City Football Club to provide better physical education for children. The school also has a good relationship with Norwich public transport networks, specifically the bus services, enabling children to get involved in their community and take part on different activities and events.
Students can also take part in extracurricular activities such as music lessons, where external instructors from a local music college come in to teach music in the school’s bespoke music room where all instruments, including ocarinas, are provided for the students.
It was great seeing how the school’s relationships with Norwich’s community fosters a sense of community awareness.
Teachers and students at the school spend a lot of time discussing the importance of environmental sustainability and awareness. They even grow their own plants and trees. The school as a whole takes pride in winning the internationally-recognised Eco-Schools Green Flag Award, and everyone contributes to raising environmental awareness and taking action to make the school and the community more eco-friendly.
The Free School Norwich is also home to the Norfolk Schools Dyslexia Support Network, which provides information, advice, screening, and specialist support for dyslexic children after school during term time. This service is available to pupils at the school, but also to all children in the community that may need support. As we walked through the school during our visit, we saw the special spaces created for this programme, and were impressed by the vast amount of materials and resources available to help dyslexic children.
Another unique feature of the school is that it remains open during the summer, during some holidays, and at appropriate times to help parents who work regular office hours. As Tania explained, it is important to be aware that many parents commute to Norwich for their jobs in this largely rural community Due to this, the school tries to meet this community’s needs for wraparound child care services during school holidays and afternoons.
The school has been providing these additional wraparound services through its SQUIRRELS team, a team of childcare providers, which sometimes includes parents or people from the community. During the summer, the childcare team works between 8am and 6pm, and the pupils are provided with meals. Over the Christmas period, the school holds sleep overs and Christmas-related activities with groups between 40 and 45 children, and ensures that children feel at home. This is held in the SQUIRRELS Lounge, a large room specially designed by the school’s students.
Tania also spoke of the school staff as a family that works together. While teachers might come from different places and backgrounds, she emphasised that all teachers are ‘home-grown’ because, they learn to carry and to teach the values of Norwich as a community.
After our visit to the school, the answer to our original question was clear: it is all about being an active part of the community. The Free School Norwich was part of the first cohort of free schools that opened in 2011, and in these eight years, great efforts have been made to work with local organisations through different partnerships. There are a number of reasons behind the school’s success in school performance, but the school’s community-based approach and values have clearly had a positive impact on the local community and the quality of education.