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About The Author
Compulsory Latin, suspension for a skinhead haircut and prizes for coming first! It's not Eton or Harrow, but it may just be the strictest state school in Britain
By Jonathan Petre for The Mail on Sunday
Published: 22:00 GMT, 20 October 2012 | Updated: 13:23 GMT, 21 October 2012
Cicero said ‘a mind without instruction can no more bear fruit than a field, however fertile, without cultivation’. So it is perhaps fitting that his head is on pupils’ blazer badges at one of London’s newest and most audacious schools.
The immaculate uniform is just one thing the West London Free School has in common with other, better-known seats of learning. There is the rigorous discipline, too, as well as a focus on competitive sport, musical excellence, a house system and mandatory Latin.
But what’s truly surprising is that this isn’t a private, fee-paying school, or even one of the country’s surviving grammars, but funded by the taxpayer – and is non-selective. Here is a working example of Michael Gove’s vision of how a state school might be freed from central or local authority control.
Aiming high: Pupils at the West London Free School in Hammersmith, London
Not just any free school: West London Free (pictured) was founded by author Toby Young, the most prominent of the campaigners for state-funded independent schools
Nor is this just any free school: it was founded by author Toby Young, the most prominent of the campaigners for state-funded independent schools. His WLFS, opened last year by Mayor Boris Johnson, is the scheme’s flagship.
Education Secretary Gove’s encouragement of free schools is controversial. Some fear they will appeal only to the middle class and could undermine existing schools. But on this rare visit behind the scenes, Young was unapologetic about the school or its ethos, which is more akin to that of a prep school or old-fashioned grammar. After all, nine children chase each place.
The school is proud of its strict discipline: one boy was sent home for his hair being too short. The few who get in live in the catchment area or are drawn in a lottery, and enjoy what Young calls a ‘classical, liberal’ education.
Mobile phones are all but banned, classes are small and teachers wear black gowns on special occasions. Chewing gum earns a detention and there’s an hour’s homework daily. Attendance at after-school clubs is compulsory four days a week – subjects on offer include debating, drama, Mandarin and Arabic. The neat blazers, by the way, are supplied by Eton and Harrow’s outfitters.
Young refuses to accept that children from low-income and single-parent households or ethnic minorities should set their sights any lower than those from white, middle-class homes.
‘Too often schools make excuses for children, particularly children on free school meals, children from low-income families. We don’t do that,’ he says. ‘Critics said if you include Latin and expect children to do at least eight academic GCSEs you won’t have a single Special Education Needs applicant, but that has proved to be wrong.
Tough teacher: Headmaster Thomas Packer
‘We were also told that because of the classical liberal curriculum we would only attract rich, white children with educated, middle-class parents. Actually, 50 per cent of our intake have English as an additional language, and 35 per cent are black, Asian or minority ethnic. A quarter of our pupils are eligible for free school dinners.
‘It is a really accurate microcosm of the area it is in, and that is one of the things parents single out – it is a comprehensive mix. Yes, we are attracting children whose parents would otherwise send them to fee-paying schools but we always set out to do that, as well as attracting the very poorest children in the community, because we want our school to be a genuine comprehensive.’
He adds: ‘We don’t have a boathouse, but we have high expectations of all the children.’
A tour of the school in Hammersmith, West London, proves his point. It stands on an unprepossessing cul-de-sac, but within its modest walls the emphasis on intellectual aspiration is everywhere, from the school’s Latin motto, ‘Sapere aude’ – ‘dare to be wise’ – to the four houses named after citizens of Greek city states: Athenians, Corinthians, Olympians and Spartans.
In a Latin class in the first year of 11 to 12-year-olds, the 23 pupils stood respectfully as I entered the room. A minute later, eight hands shot up when the teacher asked for a translation of a Latin phrase, ‘feminae pugnant’. The class listened in silence as a pupil supplied the answer: ‘The women fight.’
Most would never have come across Latin before the school, but here they were enthusiastically translating phrases from their workbooks, encouraged by a young, female teacher.
Along the corridor, a group of children stood around a teacher singing What Do You Do With A Drunken Sailor? before sitting down and playing individual keyboards. Music is heavily emphasised by the school: two-thirds of pupils learn an instrument, against eight per cent across the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. A dozen children are given places on the basis of their musical talent, the evidence for which might simply be their ability to tap out a rhythm.
The quiet corridors display another school obsession: competitive sport. A trophy cabinet stands alongside notices announcing rugby and netball fixtures. Young ardently opposes the ‘all-must-have-prizes’ philosophy prevalent in parts of the state sector. ‘We take the highly controversial position that only children who come first should win a prize,’ he says.
In another parallel with the independent sector, children must stay long past the normal end of a school day to attend clubs which give breadth to their learning, largely staffed by volunteers. Parents are encouraged to make voluntary payments towards costs.
Young places great value on the strict codes of conduct at the school as well as the expectations of excellence placed on all its pupils.
'If you create a well-ordered, structured environment, that makes it easier for children to learn, especially if you have zero tolerance towards disruption in lessons'
As I walked through the school, I saw notices reminding children to treat adults and each other with courtesy. Girls and boys chatted quietly to each other while hurrying between classes, but fell silent as they queued for their next lesson. In the Latin class, they showed no inhibitions before asking questions, after raising hands first, of course. The teacher kept control with a quiet word here and there. Rules are strict, but the children seem happy.
Soon after the school opened, two children were temporarily excluded, one for fighting, one for stealing.
Then there was the case of 11-year-old Kai Fizzle, who was sent home after he came to school with a close haircut 3mm shorter than the rules allow. At the time, his mother Tania Scott said the school failed to understand Afro-Caribbean hair needed to be kept short to be easily manageable.
Young says: ‘We were criticised on the grounds that it was discriminatory because the boy in question was black and there were cultural differences to account for, but we thought that was nonsense. You can’t have one rule for the white boys and another for the black boys.
Bonus: Teacher David Stanton rewards a pupil with house points
‘One of the reasons Afro-Caribbean boys underachieve is because schools don’t have the same expectations of them and don’t hold them to the same standards as other ethnic groups. At our school we hold every child to the same high standards.
'What is unusual about our school isn’t that we have strict rules, but that we enforce them. Quite often in school they will have an elaborate code of conduct, but they just won’t enforce it, and that sends a very bad message to children.
‘We have just as many challenging children as the local community schools but they know we have a fairly strict code of conduct and we are not frightened to enforce it.’
Happily, Kai has continued at the school – with regulation-length hair – and Young says he is ‘thriving’. He adds: ‘If you create a well-ordered, structured environment, that makes it easier for children to learn, especially if you have zero tolerance towards disruption in lessons.’
AUTHOR BEHIND FREE SCHOOL WAS FALSELY ACCUSED BY UNION OF SLEEPING WITH PROSTITUTES
The driving force behind the West London Free School was author and journalist Toby Young, above, one of the most outspoken campaigners for state-funded independent education.
Mr Young, who wrote How To Lose Friends and Alienate People, previously described his vision as a 'grammar school for all'.
Writing in the Daily Mail last year, he told how he faced fierce opposition from the National Union of Teachers (NUT), which he claimed had circulated a document to councillors on the local education scrutiny committee overseeing the proposal falsely alleging that he had slept with prostitutes.
The 48-year-old said: 'I'm a happily married father of four and the council's lawyers had moved to suppress the document on the grounds it was libellous.
'But the damage had been done. In retrospect, I shouldn't have been surprised.
'Unions such as the NUT are controlled by the hard Left and will stop at nothing to protect the state's monopoly over taxpayer-funded education.'
The school says that, as a result of imposing tough rules early on, the pupils, many from difficult backgrounds, soon learn to behave and are happier for it.
It currently has 240 pupils in two year groups, each composed of 120 children in five forms. This will grow by 120 a year as it fills up. Eventually there will be seven year groups, going from 11 to 18.
I spoke to one parent, Filipe Simoes, 49, who is doing ‘The Knowledge’ to become a black cab driver, and whose 12-year-old son James is at the school.
Filipe said: ‘The school doesn’t have a track record, but the children are coming home happy. They are definitely academically challenged. James is doing very well. The only thing is whether he is doing enough homework.
‘He gets up at 6am and leaves for school at 8am and doesn’t get home until about 6pm or after that. Then he will do about an hour’s homework, which will usually include practising the guitar and reading.
‘James hasn’t been in trouble. I think it is fantastic, the discipline they have there.’
Critics claim many free schools have been established by ‘sharp-elbowed, well-off parents’ in affluent areas for middle-class children. Some say free schools in poorer areas will drain other schools of high-attaining children with the most advantaged backgrounds, creating a two-tier education system.
The leading critic is Fiona Millar, the partner of Alastair Campbell. She wrote: ‘This free schools project may satisfy some individual groups of parents and teachers and certainly benefit the edu-chains [private education companies] who stand to make a profit, but they will do little to ben-efit the rest of us, or our children.’
Best known as author of the memoir How To Lose Friends & Alienate People, Young was a contemporary of David Cameron at Oxford. Unlike the Prime Minister, an Old Etonian, he was a comprehensive schoolboy, but sees nothing wrong in apeing the rigour and excellence of a prep school or an old-fashioned grammar.
He rejects the argument of Millar and other critics that free schools disadvantage children from low-income families. ‘All the evidence is that if a school in a particular area starts attracting all the most aspirational parents and their children, the other neighbouring schools raise the game in order to compete.’
Headmaster Thomas Packer was head of two schools in the independent sector. He says he runs WLFS in much the same way, but on a tighter budget. He receives the same funding from the Department for Education as any other state head in the borough, about £6,000 per pupil.
His school’s prospectus proclaims its ambition that 100 per cent of its pupils should gain at least eight A-C grades at GCSE or equivalent, including in English, English literature, history, maths, science and a language.
Packer, 53, a Royal Navy reservist, admits this is an ambitious aim: the borough school average for five GCSE A-C grades is 65 per cent.
He says: ‘Most people agree that the independent sector provides a good education. I don’t see why state schools can’t aspire to the same.
‘The background of the child should not matter. So far, we are on course.’
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