Michael Gove, the education secretary, who has approved 102 new free schools. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA
• See the full list of 2014 free schools here.
An unorthodox secondary school offering “cross-subject projects” rather than traditional classroom lessons, is among the latest tranche of free schools to be approved.
XP’s prospective chair of governors, Gwyn ap Harri – a former computer science teacher who went on to start a company selling educational software – says the school’s teaching method is based on how learning takes places in the “real world”, rather than sitting behind desks.
“We’ll be still be teaching the national curriculum, the kids will still be doing GCSEs and A-levels. But the way we deliver the curriculum will be totally different,” Harri said.
“If you want, for instance, an investigation into the wildlife in your back garden, there are loads and loads of different subjects you can cover within that. You can do maths in terms of the size of the garden, how many samples you can find, what percentage that is,” he said. “Then there’s the history of the place, the geography, biology, that sort of thing. So you can learn through a really wide project or expedition.”
XP will be unorthodox in other ways too. Admission will be by city-wide lottery, while class sizes will be kept to a tiny 25 pupils, with teachers expected to multitask across subjects. “Teachers want to teach this way,” said Harri. “They don’t want to just teach GCSE music, they also want to teach art or PE or whatever their passion is.”
Announcing the names of the majority of the 102 approved schools, Gove said: “There are many innovators in local communities set on raising standards of education for their children. I am delighted to approve so many of their high-quality plans to open a free school.”
Of the 102 new free schools, more than half are in London (46) and the south-east (11). XP will be one of just nine in Yorkshire and Humber, with 13 in the Midlands and three in the south-west of England.
Kevin Brennan, Labour’s shadow schools minister, accused the government of “ignoring the crisis in primary places” and setting up schools where there was already a surplus of places.
“Their damaging focus on their own pet projects is failing to put our children first,” Brennan said.
The National Union of Teachers general secretary, Christine Blower, said the free schools risked squandering resources. The NUT’s analysis claims that the department for education (DfE) has already spent more than £200m on free schools.
“It is time for the government to change tack and allow local authorities to open new schools in areas where there is a genuine need for new places,” she said.
According to the DfE’s figures, the new schools will eventually offer 50,000 places. Fifteen of them will be designated faith schools, able to select a maximum of 50% of pupils on the basis of religion. One will be the Seva school in Coventry, a co-educational Sikh school for four- to 16-year-olds.
Among the new schools will be the Family school in London, for children with complex psychological, family and mental-health problems, and two schools under the aegis of the National Autistic Society, in east Cheshire and Lambeth.
In Doncaster, the response from prospective parents for XP’s unorthodox teaching style has been “really good” according to Harri, with expressions of interest far outstripping its initial intake.
“When you sit down and explain to parents what we are doing, it sounds straightforward, it sounds like common sense. And it makes traditional schools sound a bit crazy,” Harri said.
“You won’t just learn about bees and why bees are disappearing. You’ll make beehives and install them in a local park. We’ll have a really strong connection to the community. A massive part of the motivation for the kids to succeed [is that] they will exhibit to the authentic audience, to adults in the real world, rather than doing work that goes into a folder and never gets seen again.”
Now XP has been approved, the Education Funding Authority will begin looking for a suitable site. Because it will use a lottery for admissions, Harri said his only concern was that the new school has good transport links.
Harri said he was inspired by a visit to a school in San Diego, High Tech High, which teaches using similar methods, and schools in New England.
After becoming frustrated as a teacher Harri said he created some software to improve teaching – sold through a company named realsmart, which offers licenses for £4,995 – and then thought the technology needed a school to model the techniques. XP will use realsmart’s software. “It’s the only way we can do it,” said Harri.
• See the full list of 2014 free schools here.