Free School vs. Academy: More school places in Hammersmith & Fulham

The opening of two secondary schools in Hammersmith and Fulham will offer local parents a choice of two widely differing philosophies of education as well as cutting the proportion of local children who have to go to school outside the borough.

Before 2011, fewer than 50 per cent of children went in-borough state secondary schools. The opening of the West London Free School (WLFS) will provide a steady increase in school places, as it accepting 120 students a year for five years as the school expands to fill its year groups.

But this has brought criticism from parents that the council is relying on the private-voluntary sector to provide extra places.

WLFS, which adopts an education for education’s sake viewpoint and offers a classical liberal curriculum, was set up in response to parental demand for more choice and aims to drive up standards for all young people, regardless of background.  It is currently based at a temporary site but plans to move to a renovated old school building on Glenthorne Road – near Latymer Upper School.

The journalist and author Toby Young, who co-founded the school, told the Hammersmith and Fulham Files: “We believe that you can provide a classical liberal education to a genuinely comprehensive group of children provided it’s taught in the right way. We call it a grammar school for all which, incidentally, is how the Labour Party described comprehensives in its 1964 manifesto.”

The free school will be run on markedly different lines from the other newcomer, Hammersmith Academy  (HA), which is funded by central government and  aims to give its pupils skills to help them find jobs and gives priority to teaching information technology. The academy was set up under the Partnership for Schools programme and has sponsorship from the Worshipful Company of Mercers and the Information Technologists Company which enabled a new purpose-built building with state of the art facilities to be completed before the September opening. Headmaster Gary Kynaston has said: “We’re exploring different aspects of learning to inspire students to improve ability, skills and talents.”

 Mr Kynaston has said that HA offers “as wide a curriculum as possible using different forms of media and approaches to learning, with a focus on personal development”.

The emphasis is different at WLFS. Mr Young said: “The thinking [behind a wider curriculum] was that it would be unrealistic to expect children of all abilities and from all backgrounds to tackle an academically rigorous curriculum and that they should put something more accessible and ‘inclusive’ in place. We don’t believe this at the WLFS.”  The WLFS headmaster, Thomas Packer, shares this view and plans to give priority to traditional subjects.

The free school was set up over about two years. When it moves to its new site it will resemble an old private school. HA, with its modern infrastructure, has taken five years to complete and cost £34 million to set up, compared with an estimated £15 million spent on WLFS. The different settings derive from the separate visions – as Mr Kynaston has said, to “develop core skills using creative media and IT” would not be suited the old grammar school setting that WLFS plans to move into.

Caroline Needham, the council’s shadow cabinet member for education, said: “West London Free School has gained a lot of limelight in the press, but Hammersmith Academy… is quietly blossoming.” She adds that the academy is “an example of what can be done with investment.” But she admits that their differing philosophies make it is hard to compare the two schools:  “It’s still early in the school year and the schools are very different. You can’t say which is better.”

But the choice between a classical liberal and a modern vocational style of education has proved popular with parents and both schools were oversubscribed in September.  At HA there were 632 applications for 240 places and at WLFS there were almost 500 applications for the 120 places.

The intorduction of WLFS and HA create a slight increase in the number of pupil places in H&F

This demand may show that there are still not enough local school spaces in Hammersmith and Fulham. Asked about the shortages in school places, Mr Young said: “[The] situation will get significantly worse next year and I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a national political scandal.”

Councillor Needham criticises the council for relying on free schools to make up the shortfall at no cost. She said “The borough needs new schools, currently the council is relying on the initiative of the free school founders – but this is not feasible in the long term.”

Ark Conway Primary Academy, part of the Ark Schools Charity, which also opened this September, is another free school offering an additional 30 places a year to children aged between four and eleven.

But Helen Binmore, the council’s cabinet member for children’s services, rejects claims that it is relying on the free school initiative. She said: “We have just announced we have £15 million to spend on school improvement next year and we’ve just created more classes in our schools so that we can accommodate all children.” She has also said that “children do not need to go outside the borough to get a top quality education, especially as our local schools are constantly improving”.

However critics point out that this funding is solely for improvements, not new schools.

Former council leader, Stephen Greenhalgh, has spoken of the need for £55 million spending cuts over the next four years and parents have expressed concerns about cuts to the education budget. But Councillor Greenhalgh has replied: “We will be tough but fair. It is about delivering more for less, [driving] out needless cost while improving school standards.”