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Education: C of E buys into free schools

07 February 2014

London diocese has pioneered the opening of C of E free schools. Now other dioceses are proposing to follow suit, says Margaret Holness

Innovative: the first Year-7 intake says hello, at the new William Perkin C of E High School, in Greenford, Middlesex

Innovative: the first Year-7 intake says hello, at the new William Perkin C of E High School, in Greenford, Middlesex

IN SEPTEMBER 2011, only 16 months after Michael Gove became Secretary of State for Education and threw open the schools system to independent providers, St Luke's Church, Hampstead, opened a tiny primary school in its converted crypt.

St Luke's C of E Free Primary, one of the country's first free schools, was backed by the London Diocesan Board for Schools, and, although it could take only 15 children in the first year, it was welcomed with open arms by Camden council, which had a desperate need for primary places.

Two years on, St Luke's has successfully experienced its first OFSTED inspection; and four more C of E free schools opened in the diocese in September 2013. They include a small primary, St Mary's Hampton, associated with the parish church; a large secondary, and, breaking new ground for the Church, two special schools.

In contrast with little St Luke's, the free secondary school, William Perkin High School, a specialist science and language college, opened in a £19-million architecturally innovative building in Greenford, with a first-year intake of 180 children. It is serving an area of north-west London which formerly had no secondary school. Like its sponsor, Twyford C of E Academy, and its very successful partner school, Twyford High School, it is already oversubscribed.

The special schools, St Marylebone Bridge School, and The Courtyard at St Mary Magdalene Academy, in Islington, are also backed by two outstanding academies. They are the first dedicated Church of England special schools, and reflect a growing understanding that the widespread closure of special schools across the country in the 1980s may not have best served the needs of their pupils.

At the Bridge and the Courtyard, pupils are involved as far as possible in the day-to-day life of their parent school. The executive head of St Mary Magdalene's and the Courtyard, Paul Hollinghum, says, however, that every Courtyard child spends some time in the academy. The initiative, he says, "is another way we can serve our community".

Now work is under way on three more C of E free schools in the London area, which have already been approved by the Department for Education (DfE) and are supported by the diocese. Two are secondary boys' schools, proposed by parent groups, while another is a primary school in a challenging area of outer London with a huge shortage of places.

Last month, another over-subscribed C of E comprehensive, Bishop Ramsey, in Ruislip, announced its bid for a sister school in Pinner.

The director for schools support services on the London Diocesan Board for Schools foresees the opening of more church free schools originated by the diocese rather than by supporting bids. The support that the diocese offers is crucial because so much preparatory work is required. The initial bid alone requires the completion of a 160-page document. To help with this work, the diocese already has a three-strong bids team, and may take on more staff, she says.

OUTSIDE the capital, dioceses vary in their take-up of the free-schools route - one that could enlarge the Church's educational stake significantly. Those most actively pursuing the route include areas with rapidly growing school-age populations. Guildford diocese, for example, has put in a bid for a large secondary free school in Woking, encouraged by the local council, which is preparing for an explosion in numbers of children over 11 years of age after 2017.

But the diocesan director of education (DDE), Derek Holbird, is keen on local accountability, and made sure that he had strong public support before committing the diocese. A prospectus was sent to all Woking schools and churches, and to other local organisations. Within weeks he had received 600 responses. All but two were positive. Competing against other providers, he expects a decision around Easter.

Guildford has now also been asked to bid for a primary school to serve a large housing estate that is being built on former military land, in Aldershot.

A serious shortage of primary places is also driving three free school proposals backed by St Albans diocese. All are for primary schools in the south of the diocese, where the shortage is concentrated, the DDE, Jon Reynolds, says. The extra demand, he suggests, has been created partly by Eastern European settlement in the area, and by the movement from inner London of families affected by the cap on housing benefit.

One of the proposed schools is associated with St John's Church, Watford, while St Mary's C of E High School, Cheshunt, wants to develop a feeder primary school in its grounds.

Other established C of E schools have bid to run one or more free schools. In Manchester, a voluntary aided primary school, in Didsbury, heard last month that its proposal for an associated primary on the edge of the city had been accepted.

Birmingham diocese has no free schools of its own, but is supporting a free-school development in the city - led by a school without religious designation but that is openly committed to church-school values, the DDE, the Revd Jackie Hughes, says. Mrs Hughes says that two-way collaboration is becoming more common as schools are freed.

Like the two new special schools in London, Lincoln diocese hopes that the free-school route will be the means of creating "alternative provision" for pupils who most need it, the DDE, Jackie Waters-Dewhurst, says. She is waiting for the go-ahead to develop a school in a disadvantaged part of the county, focused on the needs of children excluded from school, or in danger of exclusion. "This is very much what the Church should be doing," she says. A similar proposal from Lichfield diocese was turned down after months of negotiations.

 

A HANDFUL of free schools with a C of E designation come from outside official circles. Becket Keys Church of England free school opened in Brentwood, in September 2012, with 123 Year 7 pupils. It had been promoted by Christians in the area, including the heads of two C of E primary schools, concerned that the town lacked a church secondary school. The group's educational partner is the Russell Trust, which has also backed King's School, Brighton, an ecumenical free secondary.

In its early stages, the Becket Keys proposal had limited diocesan support, but Chelmsford's DDE, Tim Elbourne, says that it has proved successful and popular. "It is now very much part of our diocesan schools family."

Bristol and Chester have free cathedral schools up and running. Both specialise in music, and both are oversubscribed. University Cathedral School, Chester, is part of the University of Chester Academies Trust, whose director, Dr Colin Hankinson, said that it expects to make room for more pupils when it moves into its permanent home in the former diocesan retreat house.

The long-established Anglo-Catholic Woodard Corporation, which has maintained as well as independent schools in its fold, is also interested in new C of E designated free schools. It is the educational partner in the consortium promoting King Solomon International Business School, which got the go-ahead last month to open in a deprived part of Birmingham. A Woodard-affiliated C of E school, St Peter's Collegiate School, Wolverhampton, will give long-term support to the project.

Woodard is also involved in a proposal, currently in its early stages, for a 3-18 school in Hanworth, near Heathrow airport.

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