Free schools are very much in the news at the moment. Michael Evans knows what it’s all about — he started his own school from scratch some years ago. Here’s his story.
They thought we were mad
Our solicitor obviously thought we were insane when we told him that we wanted to start up our own school, but being a lawyer he simply asked us if we thought this was wise. In our naivety, my wife and I saw absolutely no reason why this was not a perfectly wise and sensible move.
It was the mid-1990s and we had both been local authority Heads. Although we continued to hold the firm beliefs that had led us into teaching in the first place, both of us had become disillusioned with the way that education appeared to be heading and had taken early retirement as a result.
Quite by chance we learnt that in a nearby village, a small school that for the past 20 years had been run by a parent-teacher co-operative, had just closed. It had finally ran out of steam and to us this was a golden opportunity to set up our own school focusing on the 3+ to 7+ age group and to run it in a way that we felt a school should be run.
Things moved fairly swiftly. The owner agreed to give us first refusal to purchase the building after three years if we had made a success of the venture and the trustees were only too pleased to sell us the contents. We went to see the bank manager and although his lack of enthusiasm matched that of the solicitor, to our relief he agreed that we could open an account.
By now we were into August and of course we needed pupils. All but three of the children from the previous school had been found places in other schools but we persuaded the parents of the three remaining children to stay with us. In the event, on 10 September 1997 we started term with 9 pupils and by the following July we had 18.
Word began to spread locally and over a period of time our numbers slowly crept up. Halfway through our second year we had 23 pupils, but by January 2003 we had 75.
One of the benefits of running your own school is that it brings financial freedom. As the roll increased so did the cash flow and we soon reached a point where if we wanted something we simply went out and bought it.
Lack of space started to become an issue and in 2002 we added a new building with two additional classrooms. This was not without its problems. To begin with, we had to go through the hoops of getting planning permission, and when the builders dug an exploratory trench it promptly filled up with water. It was then realised that the foundations would have to go down to approximately the same depth as the height of the single story building.
A family atmosphere
We were anxious that our school should be different from any other and we always ran it very much as an extension of our home. We were conscious that parents of young children often felt very insecure, especially if this was their first child, so we worked very hard to create a true family atmosphere.
An early move was to scrap the telephone answering machine. When we were not in school we diverted all calls to our home or to a mobile if we were not there. We made it known to parents that if there was a problem they could always contact us by dialling the school number.
This was actually a good marketing ploy because prospective parents always preferred to speak to a real person rather than a disembodied voice.
We never had formal open days, believing that every day should be an open day, giving parents the opportunity of seeing the school when it was in session.
Our commitment was that children should find learning a rewarding and exciting experience. We believed in providing children with appropriate structure, guidance and stimulus to enable them to enjoy what they were doing so that learning, achievement and success would follow as a matter of course.
We staffed our school with experienced teachers supported by young assistants who normally came straight from sixth form and stayed for one year before going to university. We found that this was a successful mix. While to the children the teachers were teachers, the assistants were somewhat like Blue Peter presenters and although they had authority, they were often regarded as big brothers and sisters.
We believed in extending the experience of the children by taking them to exciting places and bringing interesting people into school. We always invited a children’s writer or illustrator to work with the children during Book Week. We invited parents with interesting or unusual jobs to come and talk to the children and there was always an enormous potential for living history during Grandparents’ Week. Of course, one of the most important visitors of the year was Father Christmas.
An early aim for all of the children was to make them completely fluent readers with a true love of books. Books were chosen with great care and children would read to an adult every day in school and parents were expected to follow this up at home. Detailed guidance was given to parents as to how this might best be done, with the emphasis on sharing an enjoyable experience.
A significant knock-on effect of being a fluent reader was the important boost that it gave to a child’s confidence. Not only did they enjoy reading stories, but they suddenly found that they could use books to find out information for themselves.
Another big confidence booster was our annual Christmas concert. This was held in the local church in front of the massed ranks of parents and friends. There was usually a nativity play of some description, plus music and poems. We always insisted that all words should be learnt and there would be no reading from scripts. This was quite an undertaking when nearly every child was under seven. We believed that if you expect a high standard that is what you get.
The end of our involvement
The school was in its 13th year when we were approached by a big local educational foundation that was looking for a pre-preparatory school to complete its provision from 3+ to sixth form. An offer was made to purchase our school and this needed some careful thought.
We had spent 13 very happy years creating a successful and highly regarded school and during that time we had influenced the lives of nearly 350 children, but we had achieved what we had set out to achieve and could really do no more. It seemed a good time to bow out, so after some protracted negotiation we decided to retire for a second time.
Neither of us had any business experience when we started and looking back it is easy to appreciate the scepticism of the solicitor and the bank manager, but we had faith in ourselves and we learnt as we went along. I suppose that also there was an element of luck. We certainly did not make our fortune, simply because we gave away too many free or assisted places, but we had 13 very happy and fulfilling years and made many lasting friendships.
In spite of the solicitor’s advice, when we closed the door for the last time, we thought that starting our own school had been a very wise move.