Walking into Wac Arts College does not feel like walking into your typical secondary school – not least because visitors are first greeted by Herbie, the school therapy dog. Students do not wear uniforms, and they address teachers by their first names. “The students at Wac Arts College did not thrive in a mainstream setting, so why try and recreate one?” says Principal, James Fornara.
Wac Arts College is an alternative provision free school specialising in performing arts and creative media production. Starting with a cohort of 20 pre-16 pupils and 20 post-16 pupils in 2014, the school has gained 65 post-16 pupils since then. Students who attend Wac Arts College must demonstrate an interest in at least one of the creative subjects offered at the school. Beyond that, Wac Arts College will accept anyone. The more challenging the pupil, the more likely they are to be offered a place at Wac Arts College.
Staff secure relationships with students through honesty and transparency. From the off, students are encouraged to explore and establish relationships with all members of staff. Whichever staff member the student gravitates towards becomes the key person responsible for guiding them through their time at the college.
Pupils eagerly express their admiration for James and staff throughout the school. When it comes to behaviour, staff explore the consequences of negative behaviours with students rather than implementing a rigid behavioural management system. Trust has been rebuilt. The warmth between staff and students is palpable.
The school partners with a number of innovative organisations committed to supporting vulnerable pupils. A recently appointed staff member has joined via The Difference Leaders Programme, which matches exceptional teachers to AP leadership positions. The Camden Youth Task Force provides choices workshops to help pupils manage challenging situations. Staff receive support and training from Khulisa, a charity seeking to break the cycle of social exclusion and crime – building self-awareness in participants, encouraging pupils to reflect on the root causes and triggers of their behaviour.
The success of the school is clear to students and families. Ofsted agrees, and rated Wac Arts College Good in 2017. As stated by Ofsted: “Pupils work effectively to gain accredited qualifications that will enable them to seek future training or employment opportunities, particularly in the creative industries. Leaders believe that learning should be fun and based on a number of principles. These include unlocking individuals’ talents, fostering aspiration and achievement, empowering young people to acknowledge and celebrate their heritage, and developing skills pupils can take to their future workplace.”
The biggest challenge facing Wac Arts College is clear – post-16 funding for alternative provision needs to match pre-16 funding rates to support some of the most vulnerable pupils after secondary school. Currently, per pupil funding for falls by around £6,000 at post-16. Parity would enable continuous provision and support Wac Arts College’s vision of supporting vulnerable young people to work towards meaningful accreditations and qualifications in the creative industries.
The culture, ethos and opportunities the school provides are excellent examples of the innovation that the free school system allows. The Wac Arts College building is owned by the Wac Arts charity, which provides space for both the community and professional arts performances. While students are permitted to dress casually, the expectation is clear – Wac Arts College is a professional setting, and students are expected to conduct themselves as such. World-class performers frequently rent space in the building to workshop and rehearse, which provides students with continuous reminders about where their education can take them.
For James, the school’s approach is embodied by Alexander Den Heijer’s aphorism – “when a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower”. For us, Wac Arts College represents an excellent example of the opportunities opened up by the free school programme: a genuine alternative to existing provision which uses community-based and student-centred approaches to transform aspirations and opportunities.
We need more schools like Wac Arts College. As highlighted in the Timpson Review, children with special educational needs (SEN), children in need (CIN), and those who are eligible for free school meals (FSM) are the most likely to experience school exclusion, which can have a range of adverse consequences on their life chances. Meanwhile, a lack of high-quality alternative provision has resulted in local authorities knowingly sending our most vulnerable children to unregistered, unaccountable 'schools'. Evidently, the system is crying out for more high-quality alternative provision, particularly deprived areas in the North West and in the West Midlands, which currently has the most Inadequate alternative provision. The free school programme can deliver this at pace and at scale. That’s why we’re calling on the Department for Education to invest in a brand new wave of specialist alternative provision free schools.