From pheasants flying into windows to becoming table tennis champions, leaders at the The Reach Free School (TRFS) in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire are no strangers to the challenges faced by schools in temporary accommodation. During a recent Spotlight visit to the school, we heard first-hand from Founding Headteacher Richard Booth about how the school managed to thrive during its five years on a temporary site.
The school was approved in one of the first waves of free school applications back in 2012, and by April 2013 a permanent site still hadn’t been identified. The school’s leaders were all too aware that a prolonged period in temporary accommodation could put the school at risk of closure. In order to open a school in line with their original vision, TRFS’s leaders knew that they would need to make the most of their temporary site. The notion that “it may be temporary, but it is your temporary site” became central to TRFS’s strategy, with its founders not wanting to delay or compromise on their educational offer to students.
Located in a poorly maintained former office block with no outdoor space, not to mention a series of incidents involving pheasants and dead pigeons, TRFS’s temporary site was less than ideal. The leadership team wanted a space to reflect the school’s ethos, and this did not reach the bar, so TRFS set about turning its site into a school they could be proud of.
Booth and his team stressed the importance of language in achieving this, especially when negotiating with the ESFA. Just shifting from using the word ‘temporary’ to ‘interim’ when talking about the site (advice echoed by free school leaders with similar experiences in pre-opening), they were able to frame conversations with officials in a long-term view, successfully securing additional funding and facilities. By installing different flooring in science classrooms, students had the sense that they were in a lab, rather than a space which was identical to all their other classes.
When the temporary site was allocated, its absence of outdoor space made it unsuitable for the range of sports that the school wanted to offer, meaning leaders had to get creative. The temporary site was within close proximity of the independent Merchant Taylors’ School (MTS), which has upwards of two hundred acres of sports grounds. In the distinct ‘can do’ attitude of TRFS, the school asked Merchant Taylors’ if they would be willing to give access to TRFS pupils. Although this came at a cost, TRFS managed to strike a deal allowing its pupils to use MTS’s premium facilities. Pupils still ask to this day if they can go back and use the swimming pool!
Many of the obstacles TRFS faced actually helped to strengthen rather than dilute its unique brand. Limited by a lack of space on site, TRFS targeted a county table tennis competition to announce the school on the sporting scene. A fun, unconventional yet space-efficient sport, TRFS students quickly excelled and became county table tennis champions!
With the temporary site being located four miles from its catchment area, the school had to provide a shuttle bus service to bring in its students every day. Despite initial concerns about the instability this might create, leaders found that these journeys became a great time for bonding amongst students, which has undoubtedly helped to build the strong sense of community which characterises the school at all levels.
From its humble origins in 2013 as a school with just 42 pupils and 13 members of staff, to now having 650 students and counting, TRFS has truly become a credit to its local community and the free schools programme. Like many other free schools, it demonstrates that being bold, determined and resourceful are key ingredients in the recipe for success.