The ‘Free School’ In Half Moon Lane
It was late on a bright fresh morning in November when I walked up Half Moon Lane having got off the train at Herne Hill.
There had been ice on the car when I had left home in Sussex after one of the first frosty nights of the winter and the air still had that fresh, clean feel that you get on a bright sunny morning and there are a few golden leaves still clinging to the urban trees.
The Judith Kerr free school has had a fair bit of media attention (see below for links) – it is one of only a few bilingual schools in the country and its namesake has just celebrated her 90th birthday – so I knew beforehand what kind of building to expect.
The school building previously belonged to King’s College, London and comprised biology laboratories. Significant alterations and refurbishing have been required to make these rooms fit for primary school use, and this will continue to be the case as the school expands into the rest of the building. The aim is to become a 14 class school (two-form entry) within five years.
The outside of the building cannot be said to be welcoming, but as I walk up the drive a figure in fluorescent safety jacket appears from a side entrance and gives me an extravagantly cheery greeting. It is the site manager, a larger-than-life figure, known as Mr Mak.
Miss Basia, the headteacher, is occupied in making last-minute reorganisation for the lunch break, so Mr Mak makes me a coffee in the small narrow kitchen that I presume is used by all the staff. He tells me about his 12 grown-up children and 25 grandchildren, saying he has come to this position from 40 fruitful years in the building trade, which included several build and sell projects of his own. Now, for health and age considerations, he is ready to slow down a bit.
The last-minute arrangements for lunch having been sorted (these included the calling in of extra adult help), Basia shows me in to her office and introduces me to a recently appointed governor, who has been assisting with the shortlisting for a new TA post at the school.
The new governor is a dietician/nutritionist working in schools and has clearly already been an asset, ensuring (amongst other things) that the school is now included in the distribution of free milk. (I got the impression that free schools are left to discover such entitlements for themselves.)
Soon after we begin chatting, a boy, clearly upset, is brought in to the room and asked to sit on a large bean bag, where he quite quickly calms down.
Basia is a delightful person with no airs and graces. She has previous experience of running a bilingual school in Prague. Interestingly, German is not one of her main languages. In fact, she is learning it alongside the children, and with the parents in after-school sessions.
She was appointed in April, before the school had a building and before any of the other teaching staff had been appointed. Basia has clearly enjoyed picking her “dream team”. Even when the teachers for the first few classes were appointed during May and June, the location of the school had still not been decided.
The fact that the school exists at all is largely down to Peter Johnson, a half-German accountant, who had attempted to open a bilingual German-English school in an earlier round of free school applications, but at that time his lack of an educational background meant that the application was turned down. So he teamed up with CfBT and their joint application was successful. (See links below for the archive of blog posts that track the progress of the school from 2011 to the present day.)
When CfBt finally found the building the school is now in, Basia was sworn to silence and not allowed to tell the newly-appointed staff until the deal had been finalised.
Before taking the now-calmed boy back to his class, Basia lets him tell us some jokes, all of which have those er-is-that-it? non-sequitur punchlines common to most young children’s self-created humour. But we all chuckle along anyway, as you do.
The school has no canteen facilities so the free lunches which all children in this area of London already receive come in the form of sandwiches, rolls and wraps. A small proportion of children choose to bring their own packed lunch, but all children eat in the large room that doubles as assembly and PE hall. It is carpeted, which makes cleaning up after lunchtime a problem.
The two reception classes are eating lunch in this hall when Basia shows me round the classrooms. These are large and equipped with state-of-the-art smartboards and, in the Early Years classes, huge new 5 x 5 illustrated carpets with a picture space for each child.
The school has only recently acquired some of these things. When it opened there was no technology. No computers, no printers, no photocopier. Basia laughs when she tells me how her young staff reacted. “What are we to do?” they asked. “Just teach,” she told them. But it’s clear she went out of her way to support them, printing out hundreds of registers, worksheets and other resources at home, eating up countless printer cartridges.
And when the new dishwasher broke down one lunchtime after only two weeks of use, she rolled her sleeves up and started to do the washing up by hand.
“We can’t let the headteacher do the washing up,” she was told. “You can. I can do my other work after home time but your classes are happening now. Learning must continue, you’re the teachers.”
The erratic quality of school websites is a bit of a bugbear of mine. The JKPS website is excellent and I tell Basia so, curious to know if it is designed by CfBT, whose badge appears quite prominently on it. No, it is the work of the school’s founder and the intention is to keep this website design in the future. The school now has its own domain name and full editorial control over site content.
I think it’s an excellent site that ticks all the boxes and, importantly, is responsive so can be viewed on mobile phones as well as larger screens.
One of the parents is a photographer on The Times and has taken some professional quality photos of the children and staff which are used on the site. Framed prints are on the corridor walls. But the photographs were taken before the school uniform was fully ready, so the children are pictured in a variety of clothing and Basia is keen for a fresh set of photographs showing all children dressed in the uniform, which is a very distinctive shade of pale bluey-turquoise. I gather the logo and masthead (from which the colour is taken) were designed first, and then the task was to find a stockist that could provide the uniform in the desired shade. It is a sign that Basia wants the school to be as perfect as possible to discover that she rejected several early uniform prototypes because the colour was not quite right.
When she was in Prague the school there experimented with the introduction of a third language but after a while Basia put it to the governors, “Look we are outstanding at teaching two languages, what is the point of being mediocre in a third?”
For all the genuine efforts to introduce MFL to the primary curriculum, with few exceptions the results are mediocre. We shall have to see if that changes next year, when a foreign language becomes a National Curriculum entitlement from the age of seven. And that is why the example of bilingual schools such as JKPS needs to be viewed as a learning opportunity for schools in the rest of the system. If language teaching at primary level can be done successfully using the bilingual approach, why not make all schools truly bilingual.
I explained that part of my interest in what the JKPS is doing stems from my own lack of fluency in a second language and how jealous I am of people who can slip effortlessly (mid-sentence even) between one language and another. This is what the school aims to achieve. True bilingual fluency. The end-of-week celebration assembly presents certificates in both languages – one certificate in German, one in English. All visual captions are in both languages, with different coloured backgrounds to help signal which language is which.
The school has been taken aback by the speedy uptake of places, particularly the number of children in Y2. “These children must have been happily placed in schools elsewhere,” Basia says, “but for whatever reason the parents felt positive enough about us to transfer them to us.”
She lets out that a few of the children have transferred from independent schools and I wonder if the mindset of some parents is that ’free schools’, in being independent of education authorities, will offer them for free something that they were previously paying large sums of money for.
Not that Basia has promoted the school in this light at all. She was very keen, she tells me, to point out to parents at the preliminary meetings that the school would not be very different from other state primary schools. It would use trained teachers, follow the National Curriculum and function in all ways like a normal primary school. The only difference would be its bilingual approach.
There are exciting challenges ahead for the school. The playground needs extending and developing. Ground floor toilet facilities urgently need to be provided (currently children have to climb the stairs to the first floor when they need the toilet at break times). More classrooms need to be made ready for the school to expand.
For the benefit of readers not familiar with recent radical changes to the English education system, here is a brief summary and explanation of how free schools fit into the picture.
Up until relatively recently all state schools were under the control of the local authority, the only exception being church-aided schools, which have an element of diocesan control.
Now an increasing number of state schools have established themselves as academies and are no longer under local authority control. Local authority education advisory departments have become nugatory, to the point where those schools that do remain under local authority control have a rapidly shrinking array of services to call upon.
All state schools remain ‘free’ in the sense that parents are not charged to send their children to them. Fee-paying schools are described as private or public schools.
Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, announced a new type of school – ‘free schools’ – shortly after the 2010 general election. Now any group of individuals or businesses can propose the establishment of a ‘free school’. Since then there have been three waves of applications and approvals. The Judith Kerr School is in the third wave of free schools that opened in September 2013.
A full list of the schools that opened this year can be found here:
Free schools are controversial. As with academies, there is no requirement for them to use qualified teachers.
However, the Judith Kerr Primary School is committed to using only qualified staff.
Many people believe that the money used to establish new schools, acquire and refurbish less-than-ideal properties, and fund the support of trusts and businesses such as CfBT, would be better spent on improving educational provision in the traditional way.
The trouble is the traditional way of doing things has already unravelled, especially as the main opposition party seems to have given a commitment to retaining existing free schools if they regain power, and indeed to promote their own brand of ‘free school’, which they would call parent-led academies.
This mixed bag of doing things appears here to stay for the time being, so it will pay to take notice of the truly innovative free schools. I will be watching developments at the Judith Kerr Primary School with interest.
The School Website
Der Spiegel, 10 November 2013