Education & Family

Theatre applies to be first to open free school

The Royal and Derngate Theatre Image copyright Royal and Derngate
Image caption The Royal and Derngate Theatre in Northampton wants to open a free school to support the arts

A theatre is applying to be the first in England to open a free school, with the aim of specialising in the arts.

Northampton's Royal and Derngate theatre announced its plans at an event celebrating a decade since its re-opening.

It will respond to concerns in creative industries over the "marginalisation" of the arts in schools.

Chief executive Martin Sutherland said the proposed free school would help young people to find jobs.

Free schools are state-funded schools set up by community groups, universities, academy trusts or business organisations.

"The creative industries are growing in this country at a huge rate but we are not placing as much importance on the art subjects that help people gain employment in these areas," said Mr Sutherland.

But Mr Sutherland said the school will be open to all, and not just to aspiring performers.

"Of course there will be strong emphasis on the performing and other creative arts, but let's just say you're not going to see people dancing on big yellow taxis [reminiscent of a scene from the 1980s TV series Fame] around Northampton any time soon," he said.

"The school is going to be a non-selective secondary comprehensive and students will follow all core subjects but we will also help young people develop skills for the emerging digital economy."

Image copyright John Roan
Image caption Martin Sutherland hopes the school will "become a strong presence in the community"

The future Royal and Derngate School will be set up as a free school, a route that has proved controversial in the past, but Mr Sutherland is confident that they can bring something different to the table.

"We understand what good quality arts education looks like.

"Our role is to make sure our values of encouraging creative, ambition, collaboration and inclusion are shared throughout the school and the curriculum."

"Of course we have access to professionals within the industry, but they will enhance the teaching rather than leading it and we will be recruiting a professional team of teachers to lead the school."


Timeline: What does applying to be a free school involve?

The Royal and Derngate, who are currently at the early stages of application, will need to go through a number of processes before the first intake of students can walk through the school gates.

  • Application (3-6 months): Complete the free school application form which includes the group's vision, an education plan and a detailed case for why the school is needed.
  • Assessment (up to 6 months): The Department for Education assesses the application and invites shortlisted applicants for interview. Successful applicants are then announced publicly.
  • Pre-opening phase (12-24 months): Recruit staff, market the school and work with the Education Funding Agency (EFA) to find a site.
  • Open the doors: Most schools open at the beginning of an academic year with their first year of students and build up year by year.

Deborah Annetts from the Bacc for the Future campaign, which calls for creative subjects to be included in one of the school performance measures, the English Baccalaureat or EBacc, understands the motives of The Royal and Derngate's free school plans.

However, she believes setting up specialist schools alone is not going to address the issue of the "continued marginalisation of arts subjects" within secondary education in England.

"We have just had the latest GCSE figures announced and since 2010 there has been a fall in uptake of arts subjects by 21%."

Image copyright Royal and Derngate
Image caption Creative learning is already firmly embedded in the Royal and Derngate's ethos through projects in schools, within the community and at the theatre.

Support for the project is being sought from the New Schools Network, which works with groups who are looking to set up free schools.

Director of the charity, Sarah Pearson said: "Groups like the Royal and Derngate, which are so embedded in their communities, are well positioned to bring teachers, existing schools and other experts together to create schools that really meet the needs of local children.

"Lots of people are concerned about the arts in schools and I'm very excited about their initial ideas to drive access to the arts for all."

The next step for the Royal and Derngate School project will involve them holding a number of public consultations to help shape its plans.