Free to be creative? 102 new free schools announced by DfE

28 May 2013

Much of the coverage of the recent announcement on free schools has focussed on the supposedly innovative nature of the proposals. Beyond the shiny headline grabbing examples I wanted to see if this was really representative of the initiative as a whole.

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Our interest in free schools is partly about understanding the potential of this new structure to offer creative, artistic and cultural responses to the current challenges in education.

Do the presumed freedoms of these schools encourage more creativity or is the opposite true with parents preferring a retreat to the certainties of neat uniforms, the 3 R's and discipline above all?

Across the country there are some creative and/or arts-based schools being developed. Liverpool Institute of the Performing Arts is setting up a primary school with an ambition to bring dance, drama and the excitement of performance into children's lives.

In strict 'arts' terms this is one of the most ambitious proposals I have come across in mainstream primary and secondary provision.

Another proposal (announced in a previous round) is the Plymouth School of Creative Arts – a 4-16 age group school – backed by the Plymouth College of Art. Clearly theHigher education arts sector is grasping the opportunity of spreading creative learningthrough schools.

There is also the XP school in Doncaster (announced in this round) which received a fair degree of coverage thanks to its progressive ideas about cross curricula learning, personalisation, collaboration and project-based learning – almost a Creative Partnership school by any other name.

Within the new free schools announced last week the majority are in London – not surprising considering the baby boom in the city. The real story of innovation and cultural and creative partnership is in the 16-19 age group and Alternative Provision more generally.

The Weekend Arts College in Camden is looking to set up an alternative provision free school, building a curriculum that will no doubt be based on their excellent arts practice and depth of experience in working with young people who have been excluded from school.

There are also the City Gateway Colleges and Education Links all expanding from being charities in the youth space, or training agencies, into 16-19 provision.

The DV8 Academy in Waltham Forest will offer courses in the creative industries, backstage skills, music technology and the East London Academy of Music will become a college for modern music 'backed by one half of the electronic music duo Chase and Status' and supported by the Brit school.

These proposals have in common a real grounding in the needs and aspirations of young Londoners and an emphasis on routes into work.

The proposals for the primary and secondary schools in London have less apparent arts/creative ethos or partnership – although these areas are clearly a big part of the curriculum for some of the schools. There is no driving force as in the LIPA or Plymouth examples.

It is interesting to note the large number of academy chains – Ark, Oasis, Harris – who are joint or lead partners in the proposals. As far as I can tell this is where the parent/teacher group proposing a school has brought in an academy chain - presumably in part because of their practical expertise and resources.

There are two bilingual schools being proposed – one French and one Chinese – and one school focussing specifically on the needs of boys (suggesting a different pedagogical approach is needed). There are a couple of private schools and a number of Christian orientated schools (but not a wealth of faith based proposals).

With London's population growth figures being raised upwards on an almost monthly basis (almost 90,000 new places needed by 2014 according to the NAO) the demand for new school places is not going to go away.

The vanguard free schools tend to be led by partners with existing educational experience and parent/teacher groups working with academy chains.

Could the second wave see more radicalism? With organisations less directly engaged in education becoming more involved? What would the National Theatre Free School look like? Or the Tate Academy?

Is there scope for developing the equivalent of the New York City Museum School? A school which requires weekly visit to museums across the city and is partnered by the Brooklyn Museum and South Street Seaport Museum amongst other.

Whilst the debate about the rights and wrongs of different structural models for schooling continues the fact remains that more schools are needed and if the cultural sector chooses not to respond to that agenda, an opportunity may be missed to give all young Londoners the creative education they deserve.

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