Stour Valley Community School was the first free school to get approval. The project arose through the planned closure of Clare Middle School – something that many parents opposed. The new school is not a middle school (Y5-Y8), but will eventually take students from the ages of 11-16. It had a head start on many other such projects because it had a site and its first three cohorts of children already in place. £4.8 million is being spent on rebuilding and refurbishing the school over the next year. With such advantages, and the support of the community, it ought to be a stunning success.
But the initial signs are worrying. The new school expects, when full, to take 540 children – so about 110 in each cohort, a similar size to the middle school it succeeds. But a significant number of parents have chosen to move their children to one or other of the two outstanding secondary schools in the town of Haverhill, rather than keep them in Clare. This is particularly true for Y9 where there are currently just 35 pupils registered for September. That is fewer than 30% of the pupils that were in the middle school in Y8 this year. Teaching such a small cohort through KS4 is going to be a huge challenge and the school may lose more pupils from this cohort if they are unable to offer them the subject choices they want.
SVCS has done better at Y7 and Y8 where the cohorts are 75 and 70 respectively, giving a total school of 180 pupils. If this admission number were maintained, the school will grow to around 375 pupils. However, the headteacher is confident that the school will soon be oversubscribed. It is hard to see where this optimism comes from, unless it is the huge advantage the school is able to offer in terms of its staff/pupil ratio. The school will have 18 full-time equivalent teaching staff in September – or one teacher for every 10 pupils.
So, what can we learn from these early days of a free school? First, setting up a school in an area already well-served by excellent schools is a big risk. Parents may promise to send you their children, but when faced with the choice of a broad range of opportunities in an established school or a very narrow curriculum in a school of unknown quality, a significant proportion will move their children. Second, it is a very expensive experiment. I expect most headteachers could promise great results if they were funded to achieve a staff-pupil ratio of 1:10.
I wish SVCS well – it would be a criminal waste if it were to fail, after all. But I do want others who might be tempted to use the new freedoms offered by the DfE to circumvent planned school closures to think very carefully about whether their ideas are sustainable and in the best interests of the children in their care. There are several other threatened middle schools in Suffolk that need to take a long, hard look at the Clare example, before embarking on a bitter fight for survival.