Analysis: A problem of scale?

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holiday-clubSome primary free schools are taking advantage of their greater powers to offer nursery provision and more experiential curricula.

But critics say growth of these schools undermines state education, says Ruth Thomson.

Pupils at Barrow 1618 burst cheering through a big paper banner to signal the official opening of their free school, one of 55 such schools to open this term. The 70-place school in this small Shrophire village is a very local solution to a local problem, but its opening comes against a mounting national debate on the free school programme and its future direction.

State-funded but outside local authority control, free schools have been highly controversial from the get-go. Like academies, they have greater powers than LA-run schools over their curriculum, opening times and staff pay and conditions, and cannot be academically selective. To supporters, they represent a model for driving up standards in education; to critics, they undermine the state education system (see box).

Away from the arguments, however, a huge variety of free schools are starting to deliver the learning that they feel families want for their children. Included in this second wave of schools are Dixon’s Music Primary in Bradford and the Bilingual Primary School in Brighton, both the first of their kind in England. Within this wave too are primary schools aiming to meet the needs of both children and working families by linking with nursery providers. And while it was feared that some free schools would adopt overly formal curricula, these schools have opted for more experiential, holistic curricula.

In Barrow, it was finding that their local primary school was earmarked for closure, due to falling numbers of children, that prompted a group of parents to intervene and set up a school.

The C of E Barrow 1618 free school occupies the old school building, while moved into the reception room is 18-place Little Acorns Montessori Nursery. The school day for all children runs from 8.30am to 3.30pm, with a breakfast club available at 8.00am and after-school provision until 6.00pm.

Its website explains: ‘If your child enjoys learning, playing and being outdoors, jumping in puddles, making mud pies, picking and eating radishes that they have grown, or collecting eggs from the henhouse and baking delicious cakes, Barrow 1618 is the place to be.’

Head teacher Andrew Taylor says, ‘At Barrow 1618 we blend proven, effective and modern teaching and learning in core subjects with a strong emphasis on learning outside of the classroom in all its forms. We are set in the beautiful Shropshire countryside and aim to make the most of the rich learning opportunities this provides. Parents really like our distinctive ethos and we have opened with almost 50 per cent more pupils than our DfE target.’

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