Once more with Mark Lehain - Principal of Bedford Free School.

 Education magazine. (EM)       When we last spoke you said that you wished to be judged by the school’s results. So are you getting good outcomes for your pupils?

Mark Lehain (ML)        We wanted our pupils to both get good GCSE results and have a plan A, B, and C for post 16 options. We were the first of the brand new Free Schools to get our results last summer, and were the top performing of these with 55% of our pupils getting 5 good GCSEs including maths & English. This represented great progress for our students but we in terms of attainment, they were solid, not stellar - we wanted better than that so it took me a few days to smile about it and then admit we’d done a good job! We had the best overall results in the town as well as those for English and Maths.

One of the challenges was that many of the children had produced poor results before coming to our school and so in terms of improvement our results were pretty phenomenal. We were quite happy overall but are hoping to do a whole lot better this summer. Overall I think that the kids who came here did a lot better than if they’d gone elsewhere. On average we think they’d done about a third of a grade better than similar kids elsewhere.

Nearly all the kids we expected to go to 6th form got really good places, and where they didn’t do so well we’re still in touch with them as I don’t think our responsibility stops just because they’ve left the school. For instance before xmas we were made aware of a student who was NEET (“Not in Education, employment or training”) I invited them in for a cup of coffee and told them they were volunteering here to gain experience and stay in a routine – we’ve now offered them an apprenticeship.

EM       Last time we spoke you mentioned the non-tangible benefits for pupils of coming to this school. Such as learning how to throw a dinner party for £10 and going to the opera. Are the pupils getting those non-tangible benefits?


ML        Other than getting their GCSEs we think there are a number of other ‘non tangible’ things kids should learn at school. I’m not saying we’ve managed everything we planned but by and large we have achieved most of them. Because we have done such a good job of getting what I describe as ‘our target market of pupils’ we’ve needed to change what we’re offering. I never wanted this school just to be full of middle class aspirational students, we’re in one of the 10% most deprived wards in England, and I wanted us to pick up kids from all sorts of backgrounds. I wanted this to be a proper comprehensive school, and we are.  5% of our kids came from private schools, just under 40% of our kids are on the Pupil Premium (which is above the Borough average), and I think we’re about second in the Borough in terms of taking in kids from lower income households. We’re also taking in loads of kids with lower levels of Maths and English. I’m really pleased with that because we do a really, really good job with those kids. So I’ve adjusted our curriculum so there is slightly less ‘fluffy stuff’ in our day to day curriculum and there is more Maths and English. This isn’t because I see no value in the arts, but because they need more time on Maths and English. As a result the proportion of our Pupil Premium kids who got Maths and English was the highest in the Borough. Though not amazing, 53% is far above the national average.

Have they had opera? Yes, they’ve had AN opera session. We no longer timetable “arts” lessons because I had to fit in more Maths and English. But they can they access those things in the elective lessons (two slots a week of timetable clubs & societies) We now run a school musical every year: last year we did “Honk!”, a musical of The Ugly Duckling, and this year we’re doing Annie.  (They wouldn’t let me be Daddy Warbucks as it had to be one of the kids!) We have also rolled out ‘Music for All’ and are teaching every kid in the school a musical instrument. Every kid in year 7,8 or 9 is now learning the guitar or violin. We’re even teaching the kids brass with the help of the Salvation Army. My wife was at a toddler group and got talking to someone over a coffee and to cut a long story short we now have 10 kids learning, for free, a musical instrument through the SA! In my opinion that’s ‘Big Society’ for you and it’s also about being adaptable. Another example of flexibility came from my Head of Music who grew up in the area and played in the local orchestras. She was chatting to someone in the local Music Service and they told her that they had a load of violins lying around unused, because of the cost of instrumental lessons not so many kids have them these days and so two conversations later we’d bought and paid for them.

EM       So you’re doing the cultural enrichment activities but not at the cost of what they need in terms of the core subjects?

ML       Yes, we’re now unashamedly focusing on what is called the Knowledge Based Curriculum. We’re defining what every kid needs to know in our culture, what we want them to know as a British child. We have to expose them to Shakespeare so in Drama they are doing LESS OF the ‘sleeping lions’ thing and Shakespeare. We’re giving them more time for History and Geography as I want them to know what is going on around them. We had phenomenal GCSE exam results in History, Geography and RE! History is the most popular option subject in GCSE here too. We also want to introduce them to key things in their cultural entitlement and so we run a classics scheme so that in years 7,8 and 9 in form time as well as in the prep sessions we’ve introduced in the afternoon (we do 45 minutes after school at 3.30 every day like the private schools do) we give some of that time over to read. So they will be exposed to 100 of the classic books. So for instance Year 7 are doing Frankenstein, 1984… Dracula etc.

EM       What about that longer school day? You finish at 4.15 and is it working? And what is the reaction of pupils, teachers and parents to it now?

ML       We did the longer school day for two main reasons. One is that we needed more time for the fundamentals, i.e. Maths and English. We also needed it to ensure every kid accessed the enrichment programme. In our experience if you put clubs on after school, 90% of the kids go home. If you put them on in the school day, you timetable them, then every child does it.

We are the only state school in the area where every kid does at least two clubs every single week. It’s popular with parents because the kids are at school for longer. Our students now think that it is a good thing, though if I said that we finish at 3 like most teenagers they’d be happy to go home! 

They accept that by having a longer day they are cramming in more stuff. From the staff’s perspective they can see the benefits of having longer to work with the kids. More lessons in the day; more Maths and English on the curriculum, and the chance to do the fun stuff with them in a structured way during the enrichment time. This means that the kids get to see the teacher not just as a Maths teacher for example, but a teacher that also runs cross-country; not as a Science teacher but as one who teaches the swimming. By and large everyone sees the benefits of it.

EM       Last time we met you had 347 children across four year groups. You said the target was about 500. What is the headcount now and is it evenly split?

ML       We have five year groups with 100 places in each year group. We opened this year with 441 pupils on the roll. We’ve had loads of kids join us since September and we are now just under 480.  I think the results we had helped a lot, so though we are not quite full (we are oversubscribed in two of the year groups, have just a few places in two of the year groups) and the only year group where we have more than 10 spaces is Year 7 and even that’s filling up. We will make offers soon for secondary places this September, and we’re massively oversubscribed for this year which is something we have never been before.

We had a dodgy Ofsted report in 2014 but we’re expecting them back any time now, and we know that will go really well as we now have a track record. Not having GCSE results for Ofsted was a problem but they can now see we’re top of the town. Because of all the changes going on locally in education where they are going from an upper, middle and lower system to a secondary system. So we’re the one small Secondary School that isn’t changing so the funny thing is we’ve flipped in less than a year from being a risky option for parents to send their kids to being the least risky option.

EM       Now you’re oversubscribed, what is going to be your selection criteria?

ML       We are using the standard selection criteria used by most of the local schools because we want it to be done in a fair way. Children in care of the local authority will go top, children with statements will automatically get places, and then we’ll do it according to siblings of children already in the school, then children of staff then it is just proximity. Because of where we are positioned, and because we are in a really deprived ward, we should continue to have a really nice mix of kids from all backgrounds.

EM       Last time we met you told me that when you reach your target numbers of pupils you will be able to have the ‘resources for a broader curriculum plus the whistles and bells that make it special’. What are those whistles and bells you have and what are you planning?

ML       Because we have been really successful in attracting kids, it means that from day one we have been able to staff up fully, and with two exceptions have had subject specialists teaching their specialist subject, and I have had the ability to teach the curriculum that I would want my own kids to experience.

We’ve been able to build up reserves, which are something like £600,000 over three years that has been purely money that we’ve had as income but haven’t spent. That’s not because I’ve gone out of my way to be stingy, but as a new organisation you have got to get the money for a rainy day behind you. Not only that we’ve been successful in getting money from the government to finish off the building. For example we needed to get the building on the roof sorted, and secured £1.5 million to do the gym extension on the roof.

EM       How can you continue to run the enrichment programme and have a longer school day, on the same per pupil funding as the other schools locally?

ML       That’s a whistle and bell however it costs us nothing extra to do. The fact that I’ve been able to go out and get a second music teacher, so at the time other schools are squeezing the arts subjects due to financial pressures or because they are worried it doesn’t fit in with league tables, we’ve gone contrary to that and have doubled the time that kids have for music in key Stage 3. Where lot of other schools might only give one lesson a week, or one lesson a week on a cycle; every single kid here gets two lessons a week at the school, as well as instrumental lessons on top of that. By being clever with staffing and with our money, we have been able to deliver that. No other state school around here does it.

EM       How did you manage to convince ‘the powers’ to build a gym on your roof?

ML       The case itself was compelling. It also makes the school more viable going forward because we need to hire fewer off site facilities, and there’s a small potential for it to become an income stream. However we have not been shown any favours over any other school. The government has specific pots of money available so any school can bid to it to build facilities on their site, and we just went through that process and we were successful. That will make a real difference to us; we will have the facilities on site that every school with 500 students between the age of 11 and 16 needs.

On a practical level we have a T shaped building. The bar of the T which is by the road goes from ground to second floor, and the back part of the building goes up to the fourth floor. We are going to build a third and a fourth floor on the top of the building, and that will get us a set of changing rooms for the boys and for girls. It will give us an activity studio for the fourth floor, and then your standard double height school hall. It will be able to seat 220 people, and we will be able to do school assemblies in there. Orchestra performances can be held there too, and school plays, as well as somewhere for the kids to do PE. 

EM       Last time we met I asked what it was like hiring staff without the school having a track record. What is it like now?

ML       I always say about recruiting staff that there are plenty of people prepared to work in schools but there is a massive shortage is of good quality people to work in schools. There have been times where we have found it really hard to pass the “Sophie Test”.  (My eldest daughter is Sophie, and when I am interviewing teaching staff basically I ask myself, would I like them teach my own kids?) If I couldn’t see that or I had any doubt about that then I couldn’t give them a job. I have never compromised on that. Does that mean I have got every appointment right? No it doesn’t. Every person I have appointed has passed the Sophie Test. We are fully staffed, and have a much lower staff turnover than most new schools, and it’s a lot lower than most schools generally. Something I’m really proud of is every teacher that’s been here that has moved on has moved on for positive reasons. They may have moved to be closer to their families or they have got a promotion. They’ve left as better teachers than when they have joined us. It’s hard work, particularly in certain subjects but I’m absolutely fanatical about not appointing just put someone in front of classes. Sometimes I’ve made part time appointments because people weren’t available to work full time. But I’d rather have a good person part time part time than a dodgy person full time.

EM       You have 500 pupils now. Could you get any bigger?

ML       Not on this site but we’ve never said never. We’ve always said we’d like to expand. When we’ve got ourselves settled and used to the day job, I think there is scope to do a primary school at some point, and potentially a specialist Sixth Form, but what that would look like I don’t know. Sixth Form education is going to be a bloodbath over the next five years, with Per Pupil funding coming down and overprovision in many areas. But the outcomes in Sixth Forms in Bedford are not where we’d like them to be so I will keep it under review.  However I would not do anything that takes my eye off the ball here.

The big move in state schools is now that within 3-4 years every single school in the country will be an academy, whether they want to be or not as that is government policy. Every single academy will be part of a multi-academy trust. That’s something I am really keen to talk to other schools about, or do we grow our own multi-academy trust? I want to remain a small school but as part of something bigger. You get the benefits of being small, knowing the parents and kids really well, but the security and strategic advantages of being part of something bigger. Watch this space!

EM       Thanks for talking to Education Magazine again. 

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