TIBHS cited as successful example of a Free School
They may both be schools in Blackburn. But there’s little that Queen Elizabeth’s grammar school and Tauheedul Islam Boys’ High School have in common. One is named after Queen Elizabeth I, who granted it a royal charter in 1567. The other opened its doors in 2012 and, as its name suggests, is a Muslim faith school.
For 500 years as an independent school, Queen Elizabeth’s educated the great and good of Blackburn, and its current students enjoy facilities that include 25 acres of playing fields, a fine set of Burne-Jones stained glass windows, and a dining hall that wouldn’t look out of place in an Oxbridge college. Tauheedul Boys’, on the other side of the city, occupies a 1960s concrete campus of which “utilitarian” is the most sympathetic description, a disused facility on loan from the local authority as it plans to build a permanent home elsewhere.
Despite the 500 years of history that separate them, the two schools find themselves in 2015 at the same place: both are free schools having joined the state education sector in England through the controversial policy introduced by the current government after it came to power in 2010.
As a general election looms, the future of the free schools programme has become a point of distinction between the major parties. For voters, the question is: have free schools been a success? The short answer is that it is too soon to tell. Few of the new schools have been around long enough to enter benchmark examinations such as GCSEs. Until several years’ worth of data is collected, the only answer is to look closely at how their arrival has worked at grassroots.
Nationally, the more than 300 free schools now operating is a drop in the bucket compared with the 22,000 state-funded schools in England. But few parts of the country have been as affected by the arrival of free schools as Blackburn with Darwen, a local authority with just 150,000 residents. Its corner of Lancashire is now home to almost every flavour of free school, so that among its 13 secondary schools, five are free schools of one variety or another, including special needs and alternative provision schools.
Tauheedul was part of the second wave of free schools to be approved by the then education secretary Michael Gove, opening in September 2012. Hamid Patel, head of the Tauheedul Education Trust that sponsors the free school, said the impetus came from the parents of the trust’s first academy, Tauheedul Islam Girls’ High School, a secondary that by several measures is one of the best state schools in the country and where Patel is the head teacher. Why was it, parents wanted to know, that their daughters were earning strings of As at GCSE at Tauheedul Girls’ while their brothers attending maintained secondaries were getting Bs, Cs and Ds?
“Parents would tell me, ‘The difference is significant and that doesn’t make sense to us.’ On the basis of that, I said to the local authority: ‘This is what parents want.’ The local authority was not keen, but then they said, ‘Let’s talk about it and see if we can make it work,’” Patel recalls.
Because of the potential impact on the existing schools, Patel says Tauheedul was careful that its free school application wouldn’t harm its neighbours. “We looked at what the system could cope with. We all agreed that there is a level of surplus places that’s good and then there’s a level of surplus places that’s just not sustainable, it means empty classrooms. That’s not good because while you might create one good school, you’ve actually killed off two others,” Patel said.
Upon opening, Tauheedul Boys’ was quickly oversubscribed, thanks to the stellar reputation of its sister school. Then in March 2014 it received a more valuable accolade: a rating of “outstanding” in all departments from Ofsted after its first inspection.
While Patel is concerned at how academies and free schools have weakened the role of local authorities, he’s also convinced that free schools have been a force for good. “When you have these new places and new schools, they do lead to innovation within those new schools. But it also means – and I’ve seen it – that schools around you raise their standards. Schools that have felt no need to do anything differently for 20 or 25 years have, all of a sudden, realised the change around them and the need for them to raise their game accordingly.
“There are challenges, but I think the whole town is better as a result of the programme. You don’t only see good provision in these free schools, but I think across [Blackburn’s] stock of schools, our community and state schools, there has been a step change. I’m confident that all my headteacher colleagues, if they were sitting around this table, would agree.”
One of Patel’s colleagues is Simon Corns, the headmaster of Queen Elizabeth’s . For Corns, the pressure to become a free school came not from parental demand, but from the lack of it – specifically, the lack of parents able to pay £10,000 in annual fees for their children to attend the independent day school, as the effects of the local economy and the recession began to bite.
“It was clear that it was going to get harder and harder. The governors and I started to look at what models we could adopt. It was clear to us that the school wasn’t sustainable as it had been,” Corns said. “We considered a merger with another school, possibly getting rid of the sixth form and becoming a prep school, or possibly some sort of niche market. I didn’t like those options.
“Then the free school model came available [in 2011-12]. I talked to Jack Straw about it as our local MP. The chairman and I saw Michael Gove at a fairly early stage, to explore what the possibilities were. Ultimately, we felt the free school option got us as close as we could get in the current environment to a direct grant arrangement.”
The effect of conversion has been electrifying. The announcement that the school – a member of the Headmasters’ and Mistresses’ Conference of leading public schools – was to join the state sector and become free received wide publicity and sparked an immediate jump in enrolment, even for the last year of fee-paying.
“To give a sense of scale, two years ago we had 450 pupils in the school, and we now have 930. The infant and junior schools doubled within weeks of our announcement, so it’s happened very rapidly, which has meant appointing additional staff and all the rest of it,” Corns said. “My open day address has changed completely, from one where I was saying effectively, ‘Please come here’, to, ‘If you don’t want Saturday sport and if you don’t want a liberal curriculum of the type we offer, if you don’t want to be involved in music and drama, then this probably isn’t the place for you.’”
The response from the local authority and other state school heads has been supportive, according to Corns: “We take 50% of our intake from Blackburn with Darwen and 50% outside of it. So we take people from many different primary schools in Lancashire and other counties, which means no particular school is being hit hard, and I think that made made a difference.”
For both Tauheedul and Queen Elizabeth’s, the free school programme has been transformative in many other ways. The former private school decided not to adopt any form of selection and has instead used a lottery to allocate places randomly. As a result, almost half its secondary and most of its primary pupils now come from Blackburn’s large Asian community, many of them Muslims. “If that continues to be the trend, I think we will be doing something hugely important, socially,” says Corns.
The educational trust behind the Tauheedul Boys’ and Girls’ schools, meanwhile, has become the country’s largest in opening free schools. Since Tauheedul Boys opened, the trust has gone on to launch five more free schools, all faith schools, in Bolton, Coventry and London, as well as a primary free school in Blackburn. In September, Tauheedul will open three more, in Slough, Birmingham and Preston, and plans to expand further by sponsoring existing academies.
Both schools say they are grateful for the support of the local authority and Labour constituency MP Jack Straw. “The local authority has always seen this school as part of the area’s family of schools. We found them enormously helpful,” said Corns. Meanwhile, Blackburn with Darwen’s chief executive, Harry Catherall, has joined Tauheedul’s board.
Some local politicians and state school heads were less impressed. But initial resistance appears to have faded, at least in public, and those involved with the schools argue that Labour can work with the free schools system just as well, not least because the schools have the support of local parents. ?
Blackburn may be an unusual case, helped by its small size. Questions remain about the ethnic divide, a reflection in part of geography, and one that frustrates Patel, who says he wants to see non-Muslims in his schools. “Local authorities have traditionally been anti-academies. But this local authority is saying, ‘Tauheedul is something that was born in Blackburn.’ Yes, it now is also in Birmingham and Coventry and east London, but Blackburn is proud of that,” Patel said.