It’s only just occurred to me, in the way that these things do, but I’m actually helping to run a 44 year old free school. The path has not always been smooth, but for the last 44 years there has been a playgroup/preschool in the little village near Bristol where my home is. It was set up by local people, and for all this time it has been kept going by literally generation after generation of local parents.
Luckily, there have been some great people running the place over the years, some of whom I count as good friends. We’re a charity, and for a long time a precarious balance of low fees and dedicated fund raising kept the place going. New parents were co-opted by the fact that if they didn’t run it, no one else would (that’s how I first came on board). People at our local authority have been good, responsive to our needs, giving us the right support, making the right interventions at the right times. With their help we’ve been able to move forwards. Government funding was a lifeline, and one of the best political changes of my lifetime in terms of the potential educational benefits. But it brought with it a whole layer of management, which can only be done if parents are willing and able.
Luckily for our small preschool this has happened over the years, because many local parents can afford not to work full time and have the skills to do it. We’ve built a garden, we have part of an allotment, we invest in a yoga teacher for the kids (yes, I know how middle class that sounds, but she’s wonderful). I bet it’s not easy to do in an area of deprivation, where the need is obviously far greater. For a long time when I first began working on the committee, I hunted down knowledge and advice on the wonderful Early Years Foundation Stage Forum. (I cannot recommend it highly enough.)
We’ve made changes, and kept up to date with the latest thinking. And for me it’s been a privilege, a pleasure and a brilliant professional opportunity (even though when I think about it, I’m basically working for free for the government). Our leader is an absolute inspiration to me. She’s the reason I stayed on when my children left. Over the years I have known her she has completed an early years degree, achieved her EYP qualification, and passed her GCSE maths. That last bit was, ironically, what almost stopped her but she persevered because she has the vocation. Children are in her blood. It’s our brilliant staff who take the hit on pay to achieve a ratio of one adult to every five children (3 and 4 year olds), not the thirteen that Liz Truss would like.
But I’m wondering what all this means for the free schools programme? It’s happening, it is what it is and perhaps local parents can make it happen in a way that works for them. That would be the dream anyway. But it’s hard, and the hardest bit is keeping it going every 2 years, achieving continuity, when the latest parents understandably move on. (Although at primary or secondary the window of opportunity is a bit longer.) It sounds to me quite like a middle class solution, unless the market jumps in, in which case the very point is surely lost?
I’m not really sure what the answer is, or whether there’s even a question. The new system will bed itself in and to some extent we have to wait and see what happens. But I do hope that all these new free schools can stay true to their local area and, more importantly, their local people. Because local parents and local children are at the heart of what is so great about our 44 year old free school.