Pioneering principal explains

why she thinks free schools can raise standards

30th September 2013 in NewsPhotograph of the AuthorBy Barry Nelson,

Love them or hate them, free schools are slowly spreading across the North-East, but are they really necessary? Susan Percy, principal of the new West Newcastle Academy free school, explains why wanted to become an educational pioneer and why she thinks the North-East should have more free schools.

There are many good schools in the North-East that work hard every day to deliver a high standard of education to their pupils and succeed. But the region also faces some tough challenges, with pockets of extreme deprivation and high numbers of young people not in education, employment or training.

WNA Echo

While other areas in England have benefited from new schools, bringing fresh ideas and approaches, the North-East only has five of the 174 new Free Schools that are now open.

West Newcastle Academy (WNA) is one of these. We opened our doors in September. This was our experience.

I came into teaching because I wanted to make a real difference to children’s lives. I knew coming from a state maintained school into a free school would involve some challenges, and colleagues had warned me not to get involved with what could become a career-wrecking political hot potato.

Despite the risks, I readily accepted when offered the job to lead the team brought together by Newcastle-based charity Kids and Us to make their vision a reality.

I was attracted to the educational approach they had developed which was inspired by the ‘forest school’ model in which children’s outdoor learning forms the basis for studying the curriculum. This approach had grown out of a deep understanding of the local community. The research Kids and Us conducted found what many headteachers already know – that if parents have a poor experience at school they are less likely to be able to provide a supportive learning environment for their children, feeling that schools are unwelcoming and unapproachable. Kids and Us concluded that a fresh approach to learning would be welcomed locally.

What many people don’t realise about free schools is that they have to be wanted by their local community in order to open. The job to welcome and engage with parents started well before the first day of school, from fun days and regular pre-school activities, to offering adult learning facilities and peer support opportunities, to enable parents and carers to build their support networks.

What really surprised me when visiting parents and carers in their homes during the months before we opened, was how much they trusted and accepted that we knew what we were doing. At the time, we were yet to secure a permanent site or sign our funding agreement but, such was the disaffection to the local state school alternative, they stuck with us through it all.

We envisage whole families being involved in our school, and will encourage volunteers from the community to come in to read and share experiences with our children, they can learn so much from each other through the simple act of sharing a lunchtime meal.

Now that we are open and the children have settled into a routine, we must ensure that we deliver the innovative education that was promised, ensuring high aspirations are met, children are kept engaged, that their natural curiosity is encouraged and that learning is supported at home.

We certainly do not claim to possess the panacea to slipping educational standards in the North-East but WNA aims to offer choice and diversity to parents and carers in the area, bringing government investment and regeneration to one of the most deprived communities in Newcastle. Although the critics say we are untested and unproven, what is clear is that when local parents are offered a different choice to the local state maintained schools, they vote with their feet. Such is the demand and interest for places in the coming years that we are already hoping we will be able to expand into other areas.

*Next week a prominent figure in the North-East educational world will argue that free schools are not needed or wanted in the region.