Free schools have been criticised by some local authorities for failing to engage over school place planning, developing area-wide support and improving teaching standards. Despite free schools having no obligation to confer with local authorities, Ofsted and policymakers have highlighted how important it is for both sides to have a working relationship.
One free school that has been praised by Ofsted for its partnership approach is Gildredge House in Eastbourne, East Sussex, which was set up by a group of parents two years ago and has just been rated "outstanding" in all areas.
Gildredge House headmistress Lea Gilbert says its unexpected success – "We were feeling fairly confident that we were 'good', but to be outstanding across the board took even us by surprise" – is down to having the freedom to innovate but also a wider network of support.
Ofsted particularly praised its willingness to share its expertise with other schools and to work with East Sussex County Council to combat the local shortage of primary places.
"We are a free school and can set off on our own but I believe that we benefit from partnership," says Gilbert. "Inevitably the first couple of years have been about looking inwards but as we become more established the opportunities for partnership become greater and greater. It's for everyone's benefit."
However, Gilbert says that having the ability to make quick decisions without the need to get sign off from a higher authority is also key to its success.
"We're going at 100mph all the time and sometimes a local authority can add a certain amount of bureaucracy," she adds.
Gilbert worked in independent schools before joining Gildredge House and the private sector influence can be seen in supervised study sessions and commitment to extra-curricular activities as varied as Japanese and boxing.
But the school's core ethos is to make education thrilling. "It's not 'you're all docile learners and we're going to impart knowledge to you'. It's about us stimulating their own enquiry, not just asking 'what is the capital of France' or another question with a closed answer, but asking about the why and how."
The school isn't afraid of encouraging children to excel beyond their age group either. "No teacher here goes into a class and thinks 'oh, you're just year 7'. If children ask questions appropriate to A-level physics then the teachers will go with it and push it up to that level."
The result of this push is reflected in its Ofsted report, which noted how a year 8 pupil was already working at GCSE grade B-level French and boys were playing handball at "an extremely high level".
While it largely sticks to the standard curriculum, Gildredge House has used its freedoms by creating composite lessons that, for example, fuse computer science, art and technology. "The students don't see these subjects as discrete, they see them as working with each other," says Gilbert.
And that all helps make its pupils excited about learning, she adds: "That's one of the things we do here – make their learning really exciting and inspiring to try and get them to have that love of learning – not just that ticking of boxes. We want to fire them up."
- Name: Gildredge House
- Location: Eastbourne
- Description: Gildredge House is a free academy school that will ultimately cater for children from the age of four to 19. At present, the school teaches children in four year groups: reception and years 1, 7 and 8. A sixth form will open in September as will classes for remaining age groups. While the school is situated in an affluent area of Eastbourne, 40 per cent of its places are reserved for students from across the town.
- Number of children: 355 boys and girls
- Ofsted reference number: 139796
Offer sports for all. More than 90 per cent of Gildredge House's students play competitive sports, an achievement enabled by the school striving to offer sports that will engage each and every pupil. "There are sports for everybody and there are a number we've introduced that have increased inclusion, one of which is the wonderfully inclusive sport of Ultimate Frisbee."
Draw on the community. Gildredge House's wide choice of sports is, in part, aided by its willingness to connect with the local community and parents. It works with Eastbourne Handball to offer handball to pupils, brings in students from the University of Brighton's physical education facility in Eastbourne and has parents volunteering to help deliver sports like rugby.
Give good feedback. "We use the really effective tool for advanced learning that is individual feedback," says Gilbert. "Not just 'good' and tick but 'this is great, but why don't you try this or have you thought what might happen if you do this?' We ask children questions that will really push them on in their learning."