Education & Family

Judge us on exam results says free school pioneer

Bedford Free School head teacher Mark Lehain with some pupils
Image caption Bedford Free School head teacher Mark Lehain with some pupils

A pioneer of the free schools movement tells Sanchia Berg of BBC Radio 4's Today programme he was disappointed by a recent Ofsted report and wants his school judged on its exam results.

Mark Lehain was one of the pioneers of free schools. A maths teacher in Bedford, he believed a small teacher-led school could provide a better education for children in disadvantaged areas where results have been poor.

He began planning his new school in 2010 and became a prominent and public advocate of this new idea.

His was one of the very first free schools to be approved by the Department for Education in September of that year.

Flagship policy

But that was just the first step. As with many would-be free schools, finding a site was the most difficult problem. The school was delayed for a year.

In 2011 Mark Lehain described his vision for the free school: small, friendly, a place where every teacher knew every pupil, where standards were high, where there was a longer school day. Three years later, he believes he has achieved it.

On Friday afternoon he showed me round the converted office building that is home to his free school on a busy road in the heart of Bedford.

All 400 pupils were taking part in extracurricular clubs. There are nearly 50 separate activities, run by staff. There is German, chess, and computer coding, also "nail art" and "fondant icing" - with a room of pupils learning how to make cake decorations.

There was a relaxed and friendly but also respectful air about the place. The pupils I spoke to were proud of their school, of their smart black and purple uniform, though one boy complained there were too few GCSE options, a disadvantage of a smaller school.

However in February Ofsted visited the school for the first time and decided that despite the "good" leadership the school should be graded "requires improvement" - Level 3 - because they had concerns about some elements of teaching.

Ofsted shock

Mark Lehain frankly described the verdict as "a bit of a shock" and "disappointing". He had brought in external assessors to judge the school before the Ofsted inspection and they had been more positive.

Mark Lehain told me that he had acted on Ofsted's findings and the school was already "very different" from what the inspectors had seen in February. He believes the school should be judged on its GCSE results. Bedford Free School students will sit their first set of exams next summer, 2015.

Image caption There are more than 170 free schools in England

Bedford is one the 45 open free schools inspected by Ofsted, and not the only one to be disappointed. Overall analysis by the Times Educational Supplement suggests that, while a higher proportion than average were graded "outstanding", a higher proportion were also graded "inadequate".

However, this analysis relies on a relatively small sample. And Mark Lehain told me he has the full support of parents, who trust their own experience of the school rather than the Ofsted grade.

Leaving the school building, I came across a man waiting for his granddaughter, sheltering in the rain. He seemed genuinely surprised to learn about the Ofsted verdict, telling me that the school had been "amazing" for his granddaughter. She was a different girl, far more confident, he said, and the whole family was very happy with the school.

If the first set of GCSE results are disappointing, Mark Lehain has no Plan B. The experience of other free schools suggests the Department for Education may act quickly.

'A gamble'

The Discovery School in Crawley, for instance, was closed just a few months after it failed its Ofsted inspection: schools are usually given far longer to improve. Pupils at the Crawley school had to find places at other local schools at short notice, creating difficulties for many parents.

Mark Lehain told me he was "very confident" that he would get the pupils the best GCSE grades they could. "I have to" he said. "They've all taken a gambleā€¦ the kids, the staff, the families."

With the current controversy over Ofsted, supporters of free schools argue that the only way to judge this flagship policy is by external examination results - but no brand-new free school will take GCSEs before next summer and no results will be available before the general election.

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