Free schools provide a lesson in parent power

Some of the  parents campaigning to create a free school in the Observer area
Some of the parents campaigning to create a free school in the Observer area

With hundreds signing a petition to Downing Street to campaign for a free school in Chichester, the resolute band of parents behind the project are in buoyant mood.

“We’re not looking to create a middle-class ghetto,” says Stephanie Jones on her determination over proposals to create an independent state-funded school, designed to be equally accessible to pupils from all backgrounds.

It’s a vision which may sound far-reaching to some, yet more than a year’s groundwork and consultation with fellow parents, teachers and other interested parties has instilled in them a sense of confidence it can really work.

If the scheme is given the go-ahead as its backers hope this week, then hundreds of pupils could be enjoying life in 2012 at a yet-to-be-revealed site in the Chichester district under guidance of an innovative management team.

“From all the market research and surveys of parents we have done it is the case there’s very much a need for a school such as this in the area,” said Mrs Jones.

“We deliberately didn’t want to have a catchment area for it.

“There is just no choice in Chichester if you want to send your children to a co-education school that is not faith-based.”

The 40-year-old is a firm believer in providing educational alternatives she says will be backed by the kind of professional rigour which some have cast doubt on whether free schools can deliver.

By their very nature, they are regulated with a light touch – with secretary of state Michael Gove even indicating there may not be a need for teachers to possess full qualifications.

However, the Chichester group has indicated it would not intend to take that route and would ensure its staff are trained to present mainstream standards.

Initially there would be a limited intake across the age range, building towards its full capacity of 975 students over the next five years.

Offering further reassurance, Mrs Jones said the group’s plans would be broadly aligned to the national curriculum, with students working towards the English baccalaureate, introduced last year, which recognises GCSE attainment at core subjects in C or above in English, maths, history, sciences and a language.

There would be one key difference – they will be taking on ‘Chichester studies’, which those behind the free school feel will engender a sense of pride and identity.

While support appears strong for a free school in Chichester, on a national level, it is a concept which has divided opinion.

The first curtailed batch of 24 new schools open to all ability levels, run by parents, teachers and charitable groups, across the country have been given the green light, but have yet to prove themselves.

This is set against a backdrop of a national survey earlier this year which found only eight per cent of teachers are convinced free schools will improve education.

The Chichester free school would in fact span the complete four-18 education age range and somewhat refreshingly, is not designed to have any catchment area.

It will be non-fee-paying open to pupils living across the entire Observer area in Chichester, Bognor and Midhurst.

Mrs Jones added: “The concept of these schools is based on ones in Sweden and others in America which are doing really well.

“It has been really difficult to have to wait to find out if we can take this forward, but it’s something I’m so excited about.”

Another parent, Sarah Brown, 39, from Fontwell, is firmly in favour of the school and has been strongly assisting with the campaign.

“Not every parent wants to send their children to a co-ed school, but those who do should have a choice in Chichester, which they don’t now,” she said.

“We would be looking to teach a wide demographic at the school and are not allowed to be selective.

“I’ve been out in Chichester and spoken to families, including those who live in pockets of deprivation, and heard their stories.

“We have had very few people fill out our surveys negatively about free schools, which is very pleasing.”

When the government makes it decision it will be announced on the Chichester free school website.