The West London Free School -- a father and daughter's view

Marie Faulkner's picture
 22
I attended the seminar session last week introducing the new West London Free School. I went along intrigued to know how I would be convinced that this could possibly be a good idea, and was left feeling upset that such a policy is going ahead.

Yes, many parents will be impressed with the 'rigorous' idea of secondary education that the school offers, but even so there are so many questions left unanswered.

What about the local existing schools? Are they really under-subscribed? Are they really addressing the needs of the local area? What happened to a broad and balanced curriculum? Why should we pay for an experiment thought out by a particular group's idea of a good education? How is this democratic? What about everyone else??

Here are the thoughts of my Dad, who attended the event with me: "That Toby Young and Headmaster Designate Thomas Packer (formerly Headmaster at Teesside High School) chose the Hammersmith Lyric Theatre for their Open Event on 15th December seemed strangely appropriate. The theatrical presentation was ultimately rather like a London sales event for selling time-shares in Southern Spain with the principal difference that in my experience time-share salesmen usually have something material as well as aspirational to sell, which neither Young nor Packer had. The West London Free School has no school buildings, minimal staff apart from Principal Packer, so the barrels in its gun had no bullets - just talk. The final straw was that neither Young nor Packer would accept any questions from the audience.

For all the emphasis on old-time grammar school standards, Young himself was dressed more sloppily than one would expect for a tidily dressed front-line executive of such an exciting high profile new allegedly businesslike enterprise. The first impression was that he looked like a runner-up in a pre-beard Phil Mitchell lookalike competition. I went to a school which espoused many of the standards embraced by the West London Free School, and if I had been seen on- or off-site looking so untidy with my shirt top-button undone and my tie halfway round my neck like Jimmy Clitheroe then a prefect or teacher would have had my name in a little book promptly. As a parent I am a veteran of schools' open events and have heard many statements and promises, but on all previous occasions I had experienced proponents with school buildings and staff, as well as track-record. The salient differences 'advertised' by Young and Packer in comparison with a typical comprehensive comprised compulsory Latin, emphasis on the importance of grammar, emphasis on the importance of music, and long hours.

To go through these one by one, I have to say possibly surprisingly that I accept the importance of studying Latin in a grammar school. It has served me well in so many ways and I am grateful for my school drumming Latin into my consciousness. However, that the Lyric presentation included the byline "Nulli Secundis" bemused me because it is incorrect Latin and meaningless except to those who know Latin well enough to correct it for themselves. The expression is "Nulli Secundus" or even more properly "Nulli Secundus / Nulli Secunda" and means "second to none" - with the -us ending denoting masculine and the -a ending denoting feminine. Moving on, the importance of grammar is indeed valid for me as an aspiration as well. Ironically, within a spoken paragraph of espousing the importance of grammar, Toby Young had split his first infinitive in a fashion as aggravating to a grammar pedant as Captain Kirk's ambitions "to boldly go" on his exploration of the Universe. Principal Designate Packer went on to split at least four infinitives during his speech. Throughout the evening's projected laptop presentation there was a random inconsistent mishmash of upper-case and lower-case adjectives and nouns. In my own daily life I do not indulge myself as a Stephen Fry like pedant in grammatical matters, but since both Young and Packer set themselves up on a pedestal of correctness it is an impossibility to avoid making these observations.

Valuing music so highly is the mark of a fine school, and I applaud Young's and Packer's ambitions to prioritise the study of music and its execution. However to pile three forty minute pre-school early morning practice sessions compulsorily upon all performance students seems a little excessive. Getting a twelve or thirteen year old to practice his/her instrument regularly is a frustration for parents and teachers, but to drag little Johnny or little Sally into school before 8am at least three days each week means a very early start especially if one lives more than five miles away - and then the Young/Packer scheduled working day goes on until 5pm, or possibly later depending upon extra-curricular options. Such a long day will inevitably lead to several high and especially low points in concentration and enthusiasm.

During his presentation, Headmaster Thomas Packer spoke of the allegedly needless emphasis on studying ICT in other schools. This surprised me a great deal, not least because it conflicts with government policy. His argument was that a typical seven or eight year old already had ICT expertise superior to his own, so he could not teach them anything. This raised a laugh among parents in the audience and both these latter points may well be true, and are not news to many teachers struggling with computers. As a justification of non-delivery of essential teaching this demonstrates a shocking abrogation of responsibility and left me dumbfounded.

I left the Lyric Theatre with many unanswered questions, and also an awareness of many topics untouched by the presentation. A Trading Standards Authority officer would have had many thoughts about salesmen selling a product which does not exist - no buildings ... no staff ... what??? The question of funding was not directly relevant to the evening but never mentioned let alone outlined. It is my understanding that the West London Free School will obtain its budget at the expense of other schools in the vicinity (wherever that might turn out to be), principally because the Free School will not be providing new capacity for an overstretched educational service - it will be creaming off students and funding from existing fine schools. There was no detail of how the teachers and teaching would be answerable to parents and to the community.

For me this enterprise might be described as 'bricks without straw', but even that description would be misleading because at present it has neither straw nor bricks. The ambition to improve secondary education is highly laudable, and I was impressed with Headmaster Thomas Packer's passion. That his passion might have been applied more effectively in improving an existing school was an obvious conclusion. In my judgment the huge amount of money it is going to cost to build and staff a new (and nominally unnecessary) school would be better applied to improving existing schools in the neighbourhood, and/or in building a new school in a community elsewhere in need of the extra student places".
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Francis Gilbert's picture
Sun, 19/12/2010 - 10:25

This is a very interesting response to the school. I wasn't aware that they'd got their Latin wrong! Oh dear. I suppose I'm most struck by the inherent contradiction in the phrase, "A Grammar School For All". Isn't the whole point of grammar schools that they are exclusive, academically selective schools? This description and critique reveals that there is an "Alice in Wonderland" quality to the school: it is so bizarrely full of contradictions. A grammar school which is not academically selective, a local school which is not the local area that it's supposedly serving, a "free" school which has its doors shut to anyone who doesn't like Latin (which surely is quite a few people!).

Dominic Self's picture
Sun, 19/12/2010 - 19:06

I am genuinely confused as to how parents are now able to apply for a school which *doesn't yet exist*, with a deadline at the end of next month! Do we even know which local authority it's going to be in yet?!

Laura Brown's picture
Mon, 20/12/2010 - 07:58

It is a very odd concept that people wanting to set up these schools have to provide extremely limited proof that a school is needed. All the ideas on potential educational approaches are interesting but like you, I can't see why those involved couldn't be playing a part in existing local schools. In Toby Young's programme about the WLFS he seemed to be suggesting that he didn't like the way, in his view, existing schools turn out "good little citizens". This seems such a random, subjective criticism and one based on not having had any children actually attend the schools in question. Spending millions pandering to the random urges and prejudices of some of the most influential and affluent parents in our society seems bizarre to say the least.

Toby Young's picture
Mon, 20/12/2010 - 18:53

Francis,

The phrase "grammar schools for all" is not mine, but Harold Wilson's. It's how the Labour Party described comprehensives during the 1964 general election campaign. The West London Free School is often accused of trying to "cream skim" the most able pupils in the area by expecting all the pupils at the school to do at least six academic GCSEs/GCSEs, but that isn't our intention. On the contrary, we believe this is something pupils of all abilities can manage with the right support. To assume, as you do, that a "grammar school for all" is unrealistic is to fall victim to the tyranny of low expectations.

I read with interest the report by Marie Faulkner's father of our Open Event at the Lyric Hammersmith. He's right to point out that we weren't able to identify our site during the presentation, but that's something we hope to be able to rectify soon. Certainly, by the time we go out with offers we'll be in a position to tell prospective parents exactly where our site will be so they'll be able to make a fully informed decision. We may be inviting people to apply without identifying our site, but we won't be expecting people to take up offers without that knowledge.

I think he's being unduly pessimistic about the ability of 11-12-year-olds to come to the school 40 minutes early three times a week for music practice. This is by no means uncommon at schools that specialise in music.

He's wrong about ICT. The last government included ICT in the National Curriculum, but Free Schools aren't bound to teach the National Curriculum. Our intention is to deliver ICT across our curriculum rather than offer it as a discreet subject, a practice that works perfectly well in plenty of successful schools. I'm sorry that proposal left him "dumbfounded".

He says it's his understanding that the WLFS will obtain its funding at the expense of other schools in the area. That's not true. The start-up costs will be met directly by the DfE and won't affect the capital expenditure on other schools in the area.

He's also wrong to assume that the West London Free School will have a negative impact on neighbouring schools. In Hammersmith and Fulham, less than 50% of the children of secondary school age are currently educated at state secondary schools within the borough so there is a pressing need for additional secondary school places, a need that's going to become even more acute given that we're in the midst of a population boom in West London.

Once you accept that there's a need for additional secondary school places in the area, it's a question of how they can be provided in the most cost-effective way. I believe that setting up a Free School in an existing building – which is what we're planning to do – is the answer.

As for putting our energy into improving the existing schools, I'm not sure many of them need improving or would welcome a bunch of busybodies demanding that they teach Latin. In any event, that wouldn't solve the problem of providing additional places. Several new schools are needed in the area and I believe the team of parents and teachers behind the WLFS are well-placed to provide one of them. To date, over 1,500 local parents have responded positively to our offer and they're not the "self-selected" sample that you imagine. On the contrary, they represent a huge cross-section of people reflecting the ethnic and social diversity of the area. When we unveil our first cohort of Year 7s next year I think you'll be pleasantly surprised – or unpleasantly surprised, depending on how ideologically inflexible you are.

Marie's dad is right about the Latin, though. (It was a typo -- honest!) We'll have to get that right next time.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Mon, 20/12/2010 - 20:54

How much money is your school getting? I heard a figure of £40 million...Surely, it's unfair that schools like mine are facing massive cuts to fund surplus places in schools like yours? From what I've read, there's capacity in your existing local schools.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Mon, 20/12/2010 - 20:34

Didn't Harold Wilson say that he wanted all schools to be good as grammar schools after he introduced comprehensives? The context and meaning is slightly different... As before, there's a lot to think about in your post, but one thing overwhelmingly strikes me: isn't your approach going to encourage self-selection? Your "grammar school for all" would certainly attract a certain type of aspirational parent, but I think a lot of parents would be put off by the thought of Latin and your traditional curriculum. Personally, I would be; it all sounds a bit grim at the school, rather Victorian.

Laura McInerney's picture
Mon, 20/12/2010 - 20:58

Thanks for the clarity on this Toby. You've done a good job of responding to the points and I think you are right that there's no reason why children from any background should not get 6 GCSEs. At the same time I think you misunderstand why people sometimes say that focusing on this to the detriment of all else is perhaps unrealistic. For example, you may have students with particular additional learning needs that stop them from accessing the curriculum. Equally, some students have a very 'broken' school experience - perhaps because they are taken out of school on-and-off and this means qualifications that are more coursework orientated are easier to catch-up on. That said, I do think it is right to provide all children the option to study a variety of GCSEs.

You're right that local schools don't want 'interference' though I think they listen to demand. In fact, I believe your local schools are already providing Latin and will be providing access to 6 'traditional' GCSEs through the EBacc from next year's options (I can almost guarantee!).

This leaves the argument about a place deficit, which may or may not be strong. I don't know the area well enough to say. If it is, I wish you would pull on this argument more and that you had consulted with *all* the parents who are in this deficit, rather than initiating a curriculum based on what a small group of parents in this deficit would like to see be created.

Andrew Nadin's picture
Mon, 20/12/2010 - 22:07

Toby Young's continual verbal / written diarrhea on the subject of ANY of the government's ideological policies is wearing a bit thin. Methinks he protests too much.

If it weren't for the fact that WLFS panders to the middle class horror concerning the perceived issues associated with an inner-city secondary education, no one would apply. No site, no teachers, no track record, no account for the community at large. No applications.

Andrew Old's picture
Mon, 20/12/2010 - 22:13

Francis,

I think you are truly unaware of how annoyed so many people are at dumbed-down education. I wouldn't know anywhere in my local authority where kids these days can get even the sort of academic education I did, and I went to my local comprehensive.

Latin and a traditional curriculum might put you off, but I think it is your love of media studies and RE that is actually unusual. However, more than anything, every time you say something about a curriculum based on play, or the intellectual virtues of the GCSEs people fight to avoid, it makes me think that perhaps parental choice is an absolute necessity so that people can avoid your favoured curriculum.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Mon, 20/12/2010 - 22:30

I don't think that education is dumbed down as you put it; I think that Media Studies and RE are intellectually challenging courses that many students enjoy and benefit from in countess ways that I've out-lined before.
I do think that pupils should be presented with choices but I'm not sure that offering Latin is a real choice. The vast majority of parents are happy with their schools: http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/Ofsted-home/News/Press-and-media/2006/March/Maj...(language)/eng-GB

Toby Young's picture
Mon, 20/12/2010 - 22:54

This is why it's a little frustrating trying to engage in debate with you, Francis. In my reply to Marie's post, I deal explicitly with the "self-selection" argument, pointing out that the idea of an academic secondary school where even the weaker pupils are encouraged to do at least six GCSEs/IGCSEs appeals to a broad cross-section of the local community, not just middle class parents. Yet in your response, you say, "Isn't your approach going to encourage self-selection?"

You go on to say that it's unfair that schools like yours are facing "massive cuts" while the DfE is funding the creation of "surplus places" in Hammersmith and Fulham. But I pointed out in my post that the WLFS won't create surplus places. On the contrary, it will provide some much needed additional places. As for the "massive cuts" that your school is facing, could you provide some evidence to back that up? I know that the question of whether frontline spending on state schools will actually rise over the course of this Parliament is debatable and depends upon making some optimistic assumptions about inflation and factoring in the pupil premium, but "massive cuts"? Only if your school has suddenly become "massively" under-subscribed which doesn't reflect well on you or your fellow staff members.

The £40 million figure is ludicrous as you well know. The cap ex budget for the WLFS has yet to be determined, but it will be a fraction of that. £40 million is what it would cost to build a new, BB98 compatible, 4FE maintained school, not to set up a 4FE Free School in an existing building. £40 million is what the DfE would have to spend to meet the need for additional secondary school places in the borough if my group wasn't setting up a school more cheaply.

If you have to invent reasons to oppose the WLFS – "self-selection", "surplus places", "massive cuts", "£40 million" – it suggests that the actual case against it is pretty weak.

Laura, we have consulted pretty widely, doing out best to distribute questionnaires to parents of children in Years 5 and 6 in every primary school within a three-mile radius of Hammersmith and Fulham Town Hall. The response has been overwhelmingly favourable.

Our reason for not wanting to offer vocational qualifications is because we don't want the staff to fall into the trap of steering the weaker pupils towards BTECs and the like. We want all the children at our school to complete KS4 with the option of doing the necessary course of Sixth Form study that will enable them to go on to good universities. If they don't have the EBacc that option won't be available to them.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Mon, 20/12/2010 - 23:02

I am not at liberty to discuss the specifics of my school, except to say that it is facing cuts, as our most state schools. Let us say that many schools I am in touch with are facing cuts of hundreds of thousands of pounds in order to fund schools like yours, which are not needed and don't seem to be offering a broad and balanced curricula. I really think that insisting upon Latin like you do is off-putting to many parents and pupils; I know I'd have much rather studied Media Studies than Latin as a teenager, and would have benefited much more from studying it. I don't mind about repeating the self-selecting point, because that's exactly what you're up to; you've devised an approach that deters many different types of parents and encourages public school "wannabes".

Gary Mac Taggart's picture
Tue, 21/12/2010 - 10:46

I've just read this article and can't quite believe it. Presentations on the brave new world of schools where questions aren't allowed, no building for the school, a headmaster in place of a school that doesn't exist? Basing a curriculum on the whims of a few middle-class parents, is that sound educational practice? No self-selection but the pupils you end up with will be based on the educational bias of the parents i.e. what sort of parents sit around thinking I must get more Latin drummed into the kids and send them to school an hour earlier for music lessons?
Oh and all this has been devised by a Government that's already had to do so many U-turns on their education policies and they've only been in power for 5 minutes.
Smoke and mirrors come to mind.

Richard's picture
Tue, 21/12/2010 - 10:54

The Latin may have been a typo, but what about the plethora of split infinitives, the confused use of capitalisation, the sloppy dressing, and more seriously the refusal to take questions from the floor and the lack of accountability? Toby Young is very selective in the questions he chooses to address.
He claims that "in Hammersmith and Fulham, less than 50% of the children of secondary school age are currently educated at state secondary schools within the borough." I suggest this requires further investigation as it may conceal other data, such as the percentage of childen within the borough sent to private schools outside of it - in all likelihood higher than the national average for an area such as Fulham and Hammersmith. Or the percentage of SEN children sent to specialist schools outside the borough. But, excluding these categories, should the figure prove to be accurate, it would mean that the borough has been spectacularly failing to fulfill its statutory duty to provide a secondary school place within its boundaries for every child of secodary school age within the limits of the reasonably possible, and that such a failure has gone on undetected for a decade or more - something which stretches the credulity of this school governor of many years standing. As regards the birth rate, this too requires investigation for the particular borough (the ONS recently published data by each council authority for the past decade). LEA's have been aware for the past decade that the national birth rate is rising slightly, and again have had a duty to plan accordingly.

Alison's picture
Tue, 21/12/2010 - 11:53

I hope the teachers at the WLFS will know the difference between "discreet" and "discrete" - it seems it's not just the Latin grammar that is being bowdlerised!

Laura McInerney's picture
Tue, 21/12/2010 - 13:27

Richard, just because local councils have a statutory obligation to plan for looming population increases doesn't mean they have actually done it. Reading several of the Children's Plans in the last round for London Boroughs is scary stuff (along the lines of "there is a need for an extra 10 forms by 2018" but with no explanation of how the area plans to get it)!

Still, my wish would be that any new free school would work with other schools rather than setting up vehemently on their own. Small schools are good pastorally but they have lots of problems in terms of course choice hence the narrowness of WLFS' offering. And, while I can completely see how from the outside avoiding BTECs or'non-traditional subjects' seems to give more choices in the future from the inside I have always found having a range of options enables children to work to their strengths and be motivated, even when the rest of the school system sometimes feels quite alienating (and this isn't a class thing, many children from professional families often have art/sport interests that are suppressed because of the tight education path they are forced to follow). If, as I expect, the WLFS answer is "but the children who come here will WANT this kind of school" then they are falling into the 'self-selection' issue.

By being a small school, not collaborating with others and having a specific curriculum you either accept that many students who come through the doors will have an unecessarily narrow course choice that could motivate a good chunk of them, OR you believe only those who will like it will self-select. You really can't have this one both ways.

Michael Keenan's picture
Tue, 21/12/2010 - 14:05

"...we don't want staff to fall into the trap of steering the weaker pupils towards BTECs and the like"!
What is wrong with having a BTEC?
I have one and it enabled me to go on to do a degree and finally led to me doing a PGCE. I am now an Advanced Skills Teacher. Mr. Young should be careful when he makes throwaway comments based on what makes a "good" qualification and yes, while it didn't make me a millionaire, it is good honest work being a teacher. Unfortunately it is not just a job, it is a vocation, something Mr. Young and Free School Practioners would do well to keep in mind when deciding and designing their "ideal" curriculum. Worth thinking about being more broad minded and remembering that no matter how difficult and challenging a school might seem from the outside, it is the staff that drive ANY curriculum forward and the children who reap the rewards from this through hard work and determination, not misguided ideology based on anecdotal bad experiences.

Howard Knight's picture
Tue, 21/12/2010 - 15:24

Am I the only parent who would not wish to send their child to any school in which Toby Young might have an influence?

Tom's picture
Fri, 24/12/2010 - 15:34

"Am I the only parent who would not wish to send their child to any school in which Toby Young might have an influence?"

Nope. Count me in that really quite large number. The idea that the answer to 'dumbed down education' is to put the dumb in charge of education strikes me as lacking somewhat in intellectual integrity.

Christine Harvey's picture
Tue, 28/12/2010 - 19:42

I am a parent of a Y6 child and found this the most boring, irrelevant and useless evening of all the open evenings I've attended. A real let-down, fulfilling all my doubts by using shock tactics to try to appeal to a particular demographic. I've been a sceptic, but for months I had tried to go along with all that the Free School organisers were trying to sell me (they've infiltrated my child's primary school!) with regard to their wish for openness and fair access to all parts of society. Mind you, when the steering committee lauds the fact that it includes a former senior master of a private school and a former head of one of the most selective state schools in the country, where the "steering committee" seems to take great delight in crowing about their amazing white-collar careers and smart degrees, where probably the most insubstantially educated is a creative who's sold a book to Hollywood, you ought to know what territory you're in. So, there was me (and my child), expecting some slick, witty evening which would leave us both gagging to break down the door, that metaphorical barrier to social advancement that has been long promised. Instead, I was appalled at the sloppiness of the grammar in the presentations, and (as commented on before) even more so at the presentation of the presenters themselves!! It seems that this bunch of amateurs (apart from the two above-mentioned that they've pulled in to add a bit of lustre) are snatching at anything to entice people to their ideology like those cheap adverts you used to see at the cinema: "Look - we'll teach Latin!!!" (have they not noticed it's on the curriculum of every other secondary school I've looked at locally) "Look at us - we'll specialize in Music!!" (Well, Mr Young was romancing Twyford's head teacher for some months last year - spotted at the final of their popular music competition, etc - so hardly a breathtakingly audacious local specialism) "Look - we'll crack the whip until 5pm!" - er, well, anybody noticed the hours of the school day at the new Hammersmith Academy? And Mr Young's reluctance to answer searching questions has been the tone for his whole approach to this project of his. I'm also intrigued: suddenly a new secondary school in the same catchment area as a secondary school about to open this very year? When I think back to the open evening for the Hammersmith Academy - albeit a little shambolic as I don't think they'd seriously considered how many people might turn up - and I remember the presentation, the openness of the Headteacher, his senior staff, the representatives of the Livery companies involved and the Chair of Governors, I can safely say where I and many other of my fellow parents would wish our children to be educated. The evening actually told us about the nuts and bolts of our children's potential education, there was planning, structure, the Head and Chair of Governors welcomed some serious academic grilling, engaged with the children present, challenged them and, in the words of a very well respected local Head Teacher, they were "smart on the outside and smart on the inside". And a Head Teacher, to boot, with Senior Leadership experience in an inner London school. The Academy system is a bit of an educational experiment with this generation of children, but compared to the what's been presented by the Free School, there's really no competition.

Terry's picture
Wed, 29/12/2010 - 11:06

http://royalsociety.org/News_WF.aspx?pageid=4294971822&terms=ict&fragmen...

Please do look at the commentary from the Royal Society on the parlous state of ICT teaching in British schools. I would expect a free school to have a better stab at this than simply saying in effect that "7 year olds are better than us so we don't need to teach it". 7 year olds are great ICT consumers - as we all are now - but how will they become great ICT designers, engineers, creators of software etc? There is a proud British tradition of ICT innovation and we are in grave danger of losing out if we become complacent. Our ICT skills can't be picked up by playing a computer game or chatting on Facebook....

Jon's picture
Sat, 01/01/2011 - 14:31

Very minor point, but splitting an infinitive is not, and has never been, ungrammatical. Look it up.

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