It’s now nearly seven years since my departure from Stover. I relocated to the North East where I took over a small girls school struggling for numbers, indifferent exam results and with a severe budget deficit. Six years on I’m happy to report that it is thriving, thanks to the introduction of boys into the school, a dramatic rise in results and with a healthy budget enabling some exciting building developments to take place. Last year, though, feeling that the job had been done, I was enticed away to London, as the lucky applicant from over 160, to open the first of the Government’s ‘Free Schools’: the West London Free School, founded by journalist Toby Young. This was a golden opportunity. Any head would love the opportunity to start a school from scratch.
Janet and I are safely ensconced in the ex-Caretaker’s house at our temporary school site, having decided to keep our house on in the Country which means we can escape the ‘smoke’ from time to time. I had just 92 days to set the school up. We took over temporary school accommodation at the end of July which gave the builders just 4 weeks to completely renovate the school, install the IT cabling and completely furnish and equip the school ready for the start of the year. The run up was hectic, because not only was I designing the layout of the temporary site I was also designing the permanent site as well – so lots of meetings with architects and advisors in various parts of London. As a country bumpkin, the sardine tin nature of the Piccadilly line at 5.30 pm did not appeal – thank goodness I can now just walk to work.
We started in September with just 120 Year 7 pupils; there were over 500 applicants for these places which shows a huge leap of faith because at the time there were no books, no teachers, no buildings; just a fat Headmaster. The first three days were spent off site – a day at an outward bound centre, a day singing and creating music at St Paul’s Church and a day of sport. Then Boris Johnson came to open the school for us. He was just great – lovely sense of humour and he gave a brilliant address. We had over 60 journalist present and 10 TV crews.
We then settled down to some serious hard work. The pupils here are just like THS – they’re polite, they stand up for adults and they thank the teacher after each lesson. The local coach company that we use to take the children to sport 3 times a week says they’re the best behaved children in London.
During last term we were inundated with visitors and the media. These visits range from groups wanting to set up Free Schools needing some practical advice to research students and professors from Japan, China, Sweden, New Zealand and Scotland. Then we have the cynics – usually the British media, and the genuinely interested foreign media – last week I was interviewed in French and last term my Italian was strained to its limits. Next week we have a TV crew from Korea!
Last October we held a series of 3 open days and we were rewarded with over 5,000 attendees. In the end we attracted 1,100 applicants for next year’s 120 places making us probably the most oversubscribed school in London if not the UK.
Music is our speciality and after 5 weeks the whole school could sing in 2 part harmony. We were honoured when 20 choirs were invited to sing in the Royal Festival Hall at Christmas – the other 19 being adult choirs. We have over 70% of the children learning an instrument and we already have 5 ensembles who perform regularly at lunchtime concerts.
Michael Gove himself spent a whole morning with us and he was a real inspiration. It’s rumoured that we’ll have an even more important visitor this term and I’ve already devised a security plan in conjunction with Special Branch.
I have to admit I hadn’t anticipated the intense media pressure, nor had I envisaged that a substantial amount of my time would be spent on advising other interested parties: the Commons Select Committee for Education; the All Party Parliamentary Group for Education as well as giving 9 presentations on Free Schools and Education. Then I’ve been asked to assist Michael Gove’s personal adviser on timetabling and curriculum matters and I’m part of a Department for Education Research Team looking at the Head teachers of the future. There’s a social side as well; Janet and I have enjoyed Afternoon Tea in the House of Lords and an evening Reception there and in the Summer we’re off to Buckingham Palace for a Royal Garden Party (Janet’s busy hat-hunting).
The end of the Autumn Term culminated in a lovely carol service of 9 lessons and carols and earlier that week a donor kindly bought a ticket for every pupil to go to A Christmas Carol in the West End. Can you imagine taking 120 children on the Piccadilly line at rush hour? We celebrated Lent in the same way with a Lenten Serviced and a choir appearance again at the Royal Festival Hall. In the summer term they’re singing in Kings College Chapel, Cambridge.
It’s full steam ahead now as we prepare the 18 moth project of converting a Queen Anne mansion into our school. And by the way we’re opening a Primary School and a Sixth Form as well in 2013.
My best wishes to the Association.