Setting up a Free School

Our Chief Executive, Steve Moffitt interviews Celia Greenwood, Chief Executive of WAC Arts, to find out more about this arts organisation's decision to set up a Free School.

26 November 2013

(Images credit: WAC Arts website)

At the end of September I had the pleasure of spending a few hours with Celia Greenwood, Chief Executive of WAC Arts, to talk through the process and rationale for WAC Arts setting up a Free School. My understanding was that WAC Arts’ bid for Free School status was the first successful bid in London led by an arts organisation from the subsidised sector.

I was keen to understand the thinking and reasoning behind why WAC Arts had decided to go down this route - what was the process involved, what were the challenges and compromises along the way, and what recommendations Celia might have for other arts and cultural organisations to explore the opportunities that a Free School can offer.

According to the DfE website:

'Free schools are all-ability state-funded schools set up in response to what local people say they want and need in order to improve education for children in their community. The right school can transform a child’s life and help them achieve things they may never have imagined. Through the free schools programme, it is now much easier for talented and committed teachers, charities, parents and education experts to open schools to address real demand within an area.'

I have known of the work of Celia and WAC for many years, but I had never visited the Hampstead Town Hall campus. The building is not only impressive and aspirational, but incredibly beautiful. We both commented that it was crazy that after all these years of working in London - we were meeting for the first time.

I was hugely impressed by Celia’s clarity, drive, ambition and moral sense of purpose. WAC’s reputation and status as an organisation with years of experience of transforming young people’s lives through arts and media is unprecedented, and the organisation has an alumni that is truly inspirational. The organisation is well versed in accreditation of various kinds, has raised money from a range funding sources and has worked directly with Ofsted.

The interview with Celia made me think and question how other arts and cultural organisations might engage with the offer Free Schools may provide for children and young people across the city.

London has the most diverse education model of school management and delivery in the country, and potentially across the world.

We at A New Direction are keen to share innovation and new thinking around what schools might look like in the 21st century, and emerging new models of engagement between schools and the arts and cultural sector.

Please join in the discussion, and if any of you are keen to share your experience of developing a bid to become a Free School or are involved as a partner in a bid please let us know.

I hope you enjoy the interview!

Interview with Celia Greenwood

You have been delivering high quality performance arts and media programmes for more than 30 years - what is the history of WAC Arts?

We are 35 years old this year. We started as a weekend provision: I was working in a comprehensive school as a drama teacher, at Acland Burghley in Camden. A colleague and I were aware that we were working with a lot of young people who had enormous capacity to become employed within the Creative Industries but were never going to get there - because they did not have whatever it was to compete on an equal playing field with kids who had ballet lessons from the age of 5 and spoke in RP and had a literary background. So first we started Sunday classes for young people who wanted a career in the performing arts – and we prioritised very technical skills – at this point there was a huge amount of creativity going on in schools but very little technical foundation. The hunch was right.

Really and truly everything we have done since this point has been in response to need. We established very strong weekend and holiday provision and we were happily motoring along. I used to spend a lot of time sitting around with kids at lunchtime listening to tales of appalling failure in mainstream school. Yet these were young people you would never suspect were having difficulty in mainstream education because in our programmes they were the eager ones at the front of the class. Staying behind and coming in two nights a week to put on a performance – massive work ethic – always on time. But they were excluded from school or having constant run ins.

Evan Williams for example, he was the first Black British boy to go to the Royal Ballet School. When he was at WAC his school phoned me and asked could we exclude him because he was excluded from school. Dance was the only thing he liked in school and they wanted us to punish him. "Let’s really make the punishment go home".

Things like that were happening, so we started to look at European Funding to explore a pilot project that would develop a creative curriculum for young people excluded from school or that had left school with no qualifications.

We secured a two-year youth start bid, a very generous bid. We worked in partnership with Raw Material, Midi Music, Collage Arts. The premise was that the young people would go to different sites to explore different specialisms.

Part of the funding gave the students a travel card for the week, so they could actually start to feel like Londoners - and they were able to travel out of their postcode area. It was a very successful project and three of the four organisations are still doing work that came out of that piece of work.

Collage deliver a 16+ programme and they have a big apprenticeship programme. Midi deliver their SECAS programme which is supporting emerging artists - urban artists emerging from community activities.

We have continued to deliver a programme for 14 – 16 year olds that are at risk of permanent exclusion from school and a programme for 16+ that have left school with poor and low qualifications.

What is the scale of the work you are describing?

It has been varied and the reason for this is we have limped from project funding to project funding. We are now working with 1000 young people a week in our general offer.

We had a large piece of work with London Metropolitan University who overstated everything and almost cost us the organisation when funding was clawed back from the Learning Skills Council (LSC) and it all fell on us. Then we had sixty kids aged 16+. We have never had more than 24 14 – 16 year olds. I think we see that as our capacity, in order to serve those young people properly. And they thrive in a small tight group, where they know everybody. They know all the staff and you can give them some real attention. But the 16+ I think 60 is probably perfectly achievable. Because you are offering a flexible timetable – we are not expecting them to be in 5 days a week, 9 to 5 – they can mix and match.

Obviously moving into Hampstead Town Hall was a significant moment?

Being here has big challenges - this building has a huge capacity to raise income and in fact we more than likely wouldn’t be around if we had not moved into this building.

When times get really tight you shrink your programme - let the building out to production companies and other organisations and wait for the good times to come back, if they ever do.

However, that creates a tension constantly around what you are doing and why. Are we just here to raise revenue to survive? Do we squeeze out any meaningful growth or innovation? Or taking any risks? There is always that tension. We have always done all sorts of things.

For example we currently have a Primary Free School renting space for two years whilst they wait for their permanent building. We have bent over backwards to rearrange the organisation of how we deliver our programmes to accommodate them and I think we have come up with a workable solution – but it was challenging.

So yes there is a tension and this building is really expensive to run. It’s a Grade 2 listed building. You are legally obliged to keep it maintained to a certain standard. Little things - like there are 17 different kinds of flooring. Some of which is heritage flooring.

What do you feel is the advantage of having the building as a resource?

I don’t think we would be here honestly if it weren’t for this building.

But in terms of the application for Free School status, has having this building helped?

Yes. One other development I haven’t mentioned is we deliver a diploma. This gives equal status to all the art forms (dance, music and drama) which is Trinity accredited. This came out of the partnership work I described earlier. We initiated this as no one else was delivering this kind of offer.

The reason for this was we had a lot of students that would come through our programme and where did they go next? A lot of young people who had experienced pre-vocational training going to full time training felt lost. Either they dropped out or a very high proportion of young people getting on to a university course, or a conservatoire course would only last a year. The ones who would get to the end of a course would often feel alienated and have lost the sense of who they were by the end of the course. This would be because the curriculum didn’t reflect who they were, or there were no other staff like them, or there were very few other students like them and they felt they needed to leave who they were at the door and become somebody different to fully participate in the training.

We now run a Level 6 Qualification which gives equal status to non-western artforms. We have been delivering this for around 10 years. First of all we ran a foundation degree with London Metropolitan University. Then they imploded – the QAA closed half their courses. We then took another three years to get accredited by Trinity College.


How and why did the free school thing happen?

The free school thing happened because we were financially limping from project to project and since this last government came in with SFA funding which was LSC, which was EFA which was YPLA! The funding is mad. No charity is able to function like this. With the complexity of how we have to draw down funding, once again we have been screwed.

We have targets which are unachievable. We are currently part of an SFA funded partnership project where they are expecting for very tiny up front amounts of money - about £300 per candidate - for us to get 90% of the money we need to get all our candidates into employment and for them still to be there after a year. Only after that year do you get any serious money. It’s not achievable.

For the last three years we have been working like this and it depresses me - that if you are 16+ you are offered "pants" experiences – not enough for long enough, not in depth enough, not secure enough. So we decided you either have to stop doing this – because you are doing more harm than good, because you are setting kids up to fail – or you need to look at a different way of going forward.

Free Schools seemed like a way of consolidating what we were doing. The other thing is that we have had relationships with schools for a number of years, and they pay for their young people to attend our programmes – to be here for a day, or 3 days or full time - but we never know from one term to another what young people we will have. So you are saying to a Year 10 kid stay with us for a week, or for a number of weeks, or for a term, which means almost certainly you have screwed up the possibility of that young person going back to school full time because they are on a GCSE curriculum path and you can’t just dip back into it after 2 terms. But I can’t say to them 'you will be here until the end of Year 11' because we don’t have anything in place. You have kids finishing Year 10 not knowing whether they are coming back in Year 11. When you are working this kind of cohort this is the worst thing to offer them. So Free Schools seemed like a way forward.

So what was the process?

We started an application the previous year and we got to a place – the deadline is so thoughtfully 4 January. You spend the whole of your Christmas break – and this is a standard deadline – and by about the 18 December of the previous year – we all sat round the table and said “you know what”- we are nowhere near ready to do this properly. We need to do more on this over the next year to get us into that place. So we then applied to the New Schools Network. We got funding and support and accepted as one of their projects. And that made all the difference because there were lots of days were you could talk to experts meet other people really helpful and all free funded by the government. This kind of work is awash with cash.

Tell me more about the New Schools Network?

New Schools Network take on about 30 schools a year, or 30 potential schools rather. To become part of it you have to fill in a complicated application form that’s probably half the length of the real application form.

We were accepted into the network in March 2012, maybe earlier. We had a support officer – so we would have regular meetings. We would work through stages – we complete the vision then we would meet with the specialists. They would give us feedback and then talk us through things, amazing support and the message no matter how we are going to this – we are going to make this work.

What is the application process like?

It’s very arduous. It’s 53 pages. In the end we paid a consultant to help us. She had worked for the New Schools Network but had left and she was fantastic. And we are still working with her in terms of preparing our curriculum plan.

We are very fortunate that – I think our biggest bit of luck was – our specialist advisor is Nick Williams. And he gets it. He was our specialist advisor in terms of preparing for the interview. There are all these hoops. You get through the first stage, then you are inspected and you have a pre Ofsted inspection.

Before the final interview – and Nick was our specialist advisor in seeing if we were ready for the pre Ofsted inspection - he came and spent a day with us and met some of our kids and he got it. He got excited so he really groomed us for the interview. He was at the interview. He was the smiling face and he was also the smiling face that said tell me a little bit more about, did you not tell me before about how you, could you elaborate on, until finally you see him going thank god, they’ve finally given me the right answer, now they have actually told us what we need to hear.

Did you learn through the process?

Yep. You learn to play the game. I learned to adapt – we have been delivering a model for 15 years – the thing is it works.

Your model is not being compromised by being called a Free School?

I hope not. This is the challenge of the next nine months. So there are already pressures that challenge the model. So for example, how are we going to deliver the Science Curriculum? Well we are not – I have already told the DfE we are not. We put this in the bid. We are doing creative subjects – of course there are is some science in there.

What does it mean? What financially per young person is the deal?

It’s £8K per year per young person for statutory education but you also have to persuade your local authority to give you a top up fee. This still hasn’t been agreed. And we busily are trying to nail it. I think we probably need an additional £4K. At the moment schools are paying £9K to put a child here. So for schools it’s a good deal. It’s a cheaper deal.

Now there are some alternative provision that are asking for the same again. If a child is statemented £960 for a child on free school meals – an extra amount for a child that is statemented. So for statutory education kids – we’ll do the same as we negotiate now, in that we hope that if they transfer they will come with their teaching assistant. We’ll attempt to do what we do now – in that some young people only come for a day a week and their attendance at WAC Arts enables them to stay in mainstream and survive. Some will come full time because school is not working for them. So we have a curriculum that runs on a day by day basis. There won’t be drama that runs Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings, they will all be in linear day blocks. So if you just come for Monday and Friday, you will get discrete packages of a creative curriculum that will lead will to some form of qualification.

We are looking at everything at the moment – we are even looking at GCSE even though I think we will abandon GCSE, but we feel will have to look at it and the reason we will probably have to abandon it – and NCFE – is because GCSEs are not modular, and you have to do a year and you have to be there all the time.

Our kids aren’t like that – crisis happens – mum’s gone into hospital, all sorts of drama – you know kids have been arrested, on remand – all sorts of things go on. We want to deliver a curriculum – well we do now – where we do a half term – a block and you get something, like Arts Award Bronze, Silver, Gold – it’ll be OCN – units leading to a whole qualification. Because it doesn’t work any other way for our cohort. They‘ve got to feel that if they screw up at half term that’s not the year wasted.

How are you going to resource the school staffing wise?

A core staff of permanent teachers – and we will do what we do using existing artists and teaching staff.

Do you have those people currently on your books?

Yes, although not all of them will necessarily want to make that transfer. I think the only appointment that we are really putting a lot of energy into in terms of recruitment is the Chair of the Board. You have to have a governing body. Our other big challenge was trying to create memorandum and articles of agreement for that in WAC. Really they are 2 separate things - but they are not. So I think we have come up with a model now that I think the DfE will agree – the governing body of the WAC Arts free school will have always have a minority of WAC Arts Board members, the chair of the WAC Arts Free School will be a member of the WAC Arts Board, and there will be key strategic areas which cannot be agreed without the full agreement of the WAC Arts Board – so it can't just drift off and become something completely different – so that’s a big challenge

You can have a pre-opening governing body – like any governing body it has to have parents, staff, etc. – you can delay all of that until the school is at the point of opening, but once you are in the opening stages it has to conform to all the legal frameworks of a governing body of school – which means it has to have head teacher representation, staff representation and parent representation.

What will your role be? You’re not going to be the Head?

No - I think we have got a head teacher, we have to advertise. That’s why getting the right chair, who will do a skills audit on the resources we have in the organisation is important.

We certainly need new input, we need somebody with hardcore Ofsted education experience on the staff but not necessarily as the head – I think the head has got to be a very different kind of being.

For me the most important thing about the head is that they have a very powerful relationship with the kids – can inspire them – but also can inspire the staff team that they are leading through their passion for what we are doing, and not necessarily that they can tick every box in terms of Ofsted - someone else can do that. 64 kids full time equivalent – so it could be that we have 80 kids. Really flexible.

Would you encourage other arts organisations to apply for Free school status?

Yes I would.