The Heads of two new free schools talk to Hackney Hive about the changing face of education in East London
Four new schools will be opening in East London in September 2013, each offering a distinctive approach to education: the music-centred Hackney New School and the East London Science School (both free schools), an academy focusing on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), and a Muslim faith primary school called The Olive. They aim to provide top-quality education for Hackney children aged five to 19, and Education Secretary Michael Gove has endorsed all four schools. However, some people in the community have greeted the news with concern.
The Hackney New School (HNS) has recently revealed its new head teacher to be Lesley Falconer, who has 13 years of headship experience in Surrey and inner London schools and a background in science. HNS will specialise in music: ‘Everyone will learn an instrument and probably take a GCSE in Music,’ said Falconer. However, the school will offer a broad general education, with all pupils having to take specific subjects including Maths, English, two languages and three sciences.
HNS Programme Director Philippa De’Ath told us that the appeal of music is that it offers all-round benefits: ‘it enhances not only academic rigour but also confidence and self-esteem.’ Falconer added, “because of the size of the school, we can focus very much on the individual, and have a particularly tailored education for each student’ in order to deliver a ‘whole person education.”
Ten places in each year will be reserved for pupils with a particular aptitude for music, but the majority of places is to be divided equally between children from the surrounding areas: “the school will be as open and mixed as it possibly can be,’ says Falconer. The HNS team has agreed its preferred site with the DfE in the South West of Hackney and hopes to complete contracts by the end of the year, when they can confirm the exact location.
However, the school has already encountered local opposition. Figures from the Hackney Learning Trust suggest that the North and West of the borough are in more urgent need of schools. Falconer responded to this by saying “based on parental demand, we are very sure that there is a need for a new secondary school in that area of Hackney.”
Furthermore, last year local campaigners formed the group Hackney Says No To Free School. They claim that free schools will reduce the budget for other local schools, leaving South Hackney with no local state comprehensives. HNS is led by corporate finance advisor Andreas Wesemann, and the campaigners claim that this is a sign of privatisation. De’Ath replies to this that, “our school will not be run for profit, and will receive substantially less funding than previous free schools, academies or community schools.”
In response to accusations that HNS will be a school geared towards the local middle class population, De’Ath said “we are confident that our student intake represents the local population and are working with individual parents to make sure they are involved.” The school is determined to accurately reflect the local community’s demographics, and are aiming for 45 to 50 per cent of their pupils to be eligible for free school meals”. They also plan to set up evening classes for parents and a summer school for the wider community.
Hackney South and Shoreditch MP Meg Hillier has expressed concern about the ‘secrecy’ around how HNS will invest its budget, to which De’Ath said the budgets ‘are in the public domain once they’re up and running; there is a particular formula depending on the size of school you are going to run, so how it can be secret I’m not sure.’ Falconer added to this that the budget ‘is actually considerably less than other big schools in that area.’
Like the Hackney New School, the East London Science School (ELSS) will open to roughly 100 Year 7 pupils in its first year. ELSS will add a 100-strong sixth form in 2014 and aims to reach 1000 students within the seventh year of opening. Both schools will rely on learning-based mornings and practical afternoons. Principal David Perks told the Hackney Hive, “this allows us to take the pupils out of the school during lunchtime and use London as our classroom.”
Challenging the low expectations that some teachers have of pupils, Perks insists on academic-level science being taught. ELSS will ensure that every pupil gets specialist teaching in physics, chemistry and biology from Year 7 to 11. “Our aim is to create potential Nobel Laureates,” Perks said. But the school will offer more than just science: it will provide a computer science based technical education, varied subjects including English, Art, Music and History, and a range of 12 A-Level options.
Perks, who has taught in state schools for almost 25 years, also wants to make sure the school will reach the least privileged children in the borough: he told us the school will operate ‘an admissions policy based on distance from school to home as our main over subscription criteria. “We want to educate any pupil who wants the kind of education and opportunities we are offering regardless of ability or background.”
But Year 7 pupils will not be the only ones catered to. The STEM Academy, based in Shoreditch, will be open to students between the age of 16 and 19 from all over London who have demonstrated an aptitude and interest in the subjects on offer. The Academy will also offer an optional AQA baccalaureate on top of A Levels.
Finally, the Olive School will open to 630 primary school children. It is being set up by the Tauheedul Islam Faith Education and Community Trust, which already runs the Tauheedul Islam Girls’ High School in Blackburn. Applications from families of all faiths will be welcome, and the school’s ethos will be to promote social cohesion while reflecting London’s multicultural heritage.
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