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‘There is such a shortage of places in London that schools will soon have to start teaching in shifts—as they are forced to in developing countries’

Katharine Birbalsingh

We are getting closer. Our dream of setting up a free school in south London is slowly becoming a reality despite a small but very vocal opposition. The other night, at our parent information evening, one detractor interrupted me in the middle of my speech to the audience, by shouting, “You betrayed us when you decided to speak at the Tory Party conference!”

Who does she mean by “us”? It is incredible how some people see the world as divided into “them” and “us”. I can only presume that the Tories are “them” and the “us” are what she would describe as the “good people”. This particular opponent has followed us from the beginning, always showing up at our events. It is amazing that her anger runs so deep that she should dedicate so much time and energy to trying to disrupt us. 

After all, we’re only trying to set up a school, one that will give inner-city families more choice in their children’s education. What exactly is the problem? 

Our critics continually insist that free schools take money away from local schools. That is simply not true. Schools get their money on a per pupil basis. First, when we were hoping to be in north Lambeth, our opponents insisted there was no shortage of places there (not true), and that the real problem for places was in the south of the borough. Now that we have a building right next to this problem area (in Wandsworth, but on the borders of Lambeth and Merton), they are saying there is no shortage here after all. Meanwhile, the mayor’s office says there is such a shortage of places in London that schools will soon have to start teaching in shifts — as they are forced to do in many developing countries.

We are fast approaching the situation of the poorer countries of the world. In response some councils are hurriedly selling off the last of their old empty school buildings to prevent free schools, which might want to take them over, from opening. Thank goodness not all councils are like this. Wandsworth could not be more welcoming and supportive. But the truth is kept from those readers of certain newspapers that continue to be unsympathetic in their portrayal of free schools. It is a relief that the 79 groups that are to open free schools in September are ploughing on. 

At the proposed Michaela Community School, we have appointed a deputy and a curriculum director. We are soon to appoint our teaching staff. It is very exciting. We plan to teach a “knowledge-curriculum”, which is relatively rare in the state sector. This will place emphasis on academic subjects, ensuring that pupils spend more time on these. But even art and music will benefit, with the usual one lesson of exposure each week being doubled. We have an extended day which will allow time to include Latin and Mandarin, but also financial literacy and media analysis for those pupils who prefer them. 

Some people accuse us of wanting only high-achieving pupils because we plan to concentrate on English and maths. In reality we want to address the fact that 20 per cent of British school-leavers are functionally illiterate and innumerate. Nearly half of our children leave school without five GCSEs including English and maths. Our goal at Michaela, even with our mixed ability intake, is that not a single pupil should leave us without a solid grounding in those basic subjects which will allow them to negotiate their way through the world. Everyone needs to know how to write a CV or how to look a word up in a dictionary, and it is disappointing that so many believe that to do so is somehow an “academic” endeavour, a skill that only the privileged few should acquire.

Still, this is an exciting time for education in Britain. Some local primary heads  support the idea of choice and recognise that they are the gateway for some families just to know our school exists. So whatever their politics, they are open-minded enough to tell them about our existence. We are grateful. 

One of the teachers on my steering group recently said to me, “I don’t want to say that Michael Gove has given me a new lease of life, but in a way, he has. He has allowed us teachers to be true professionals, to take control of a project and be responsible for it. I’m just so inspired.”

For those of us in education who like to think outside the box, the free school movement has transformed our lives. We hope our school has a lasting impact, in particular on the more disadvantaged families. One thing is for sure: Michaela graduates will never interrupt meetings by shouting, no matter what their personal or political beliefs, because at Michaela they will learn that such behaviour only reflects badly on the perpetrator. If only all of us could be so lucky.

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