Crawley’s second attempt at a free school – The Gatwick School – is coming to the end of its first year. With pupil numbers doubling and massive expansion under way, staff are confident the future will be just as successful
Eighteen months ago, the term ‘free school’ was greeted with a great deal of trepidation by parents in Crawley.
The Discovery School, in Broadfield, was making national headlines having been closed by the government over teaching standards; while on the other side of town, someone was preparing to open a free school in a business park.
Sceptics raised their eyebrows and wondered how long this one would last and who would risk sending their children there?
As it turned out, pupil numbers at The Gatwick School more than doubled in its first year and its highly experienced staff are preparing for not only the next intake but massive expansion at the site in Gatwick Road.
Head of school, Simon Ruscoe-Price, said measuring the Gatwick School against the Discovery School was like “comparing apples and pears”.
But he acknowledged: “Parents have taken an enormous leap of faith in sending their children here. This time a year ago it was an empty building.
“We won’t be fully finished until into next year and yet they are choosing to send their children here.”
The increase in pupil numbers was the only thing the Crawley Free School Trust – which operates the school – did not predict on opening.
The school started with 18 students in Year 7 and 23 in Reception. Those numbers rose to 43 and 45 respectively as the year wore on.
Simon said: “We couldn’t predict that, but we’ve managed it and we’ve done that pretty well. That’s been a really exciting reward.”
The Gatwick School’s first year only included children from Reception and Year 7 so, even when building work is finished, it will be 2020 before all the classrooms are full.
The expansion will include rooms for science, maths and music as well as an area for children with special educational needs, though those youngsters are also fully integrated in classrooms with their peers.
As yet, there are no plans to introduce a sixth-form.
Simon said: “We would like to look at the sixth-form but first of all it’s looking at what the local demand is and talking with other providers and making sure that whatever we offer meets the needs of the locality rather than duplicating what’s there.
“Whilst we wouldn’t be adverse to it, at the moment in time our real focus is getting set up as an all-through from Reception to Year 11.”
Academies and free schools came under the microscope recently after the government announced all failing schools would be made into academies by 2020.
Simon said: “It’s interesting because for me, personally I don’t think it matters whether you are an independent school, a free school, an academy or a local authority school. If you’ve got motivated teachers, motivated learners and you’ve got a good structure and you provide that learning environment, learning is learning.”
Explaining the attraction of working at a free school or academy rather than one run by the local authority, Simon said the system gave schools “the freedom to be creative, to be pioneers”.
Comparing them to the early specialist schools, he added: “Many of those schools, what they did was they thought outside the box and they really focussed on excellence. And those specialisms within the school lifted up learning throughout the whole school in a range of different fields.”
The Gatwick School will undergo its first Ofsted inspection sometime between late winter and spring. While the experience will no doubt be nerve-racking, there is an air of quiet confidence in the staff room.
Describing the school’s first year, Simon said: “It’s been a delightful time. I want to thank all the parents and families that have put their faith in us.
“We’re confident that we haven’t disappointed them so far and we hope not to in the future.
“We love being here and we’re really proud of the achievements of our students over the past year.”
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