COLUMN: Happy to bust a few myths on free schools

Jo Bland, head teacher of Boston Pioneers Free School.
Jo Bland, head teacher of Boston Pioneers Free School.

A warm welcome to all readers. I am Jo Bland, Principal at Boston Pioneers Free School, Lincolnshire’s first and only mainstream free school and I look forward to giving you a greater insight into the work of my school and others in the locality.

I firmly believe we are in a period which presents amazing opportunities to revolutionise education and hope to give you a deeper understanding of them.

As Mark Twain said: “A lie can travel half way round the world while the truth is still putting its boots on.” So I thought I’d correct a few of the ‘myths’ associated with free schools like mine.

The first was bought to my attention by my chair of governors whose work colleague, upon hearing his child was attending Pioneers, said: “You’re brave aren’t you. None of the teachers are qualified!” Although it is true free schools can, if they choose, hire unqualified teachers, the evidence from the best school systems around the world shows the quality of teaching makes the biggest difference to raising school standards and Pioneers, like many free schools have a ‘no unqualified teachers’ policy and select only the very best of staff.

According to Tristram Hunt, shadow education secretary, free schools are a ‘vanity project for yummy mummies’ and are exclusively for ‘the middle classes’. Again, this is simply not true. Although free schools are legally ‘independent schools operating in the state sector’, the admissions policies of free schools have to be fully inclusive and ours is identical to all the county’s mainstream state schools.

It appears everyone has something to say on the matter, with the editor of the Guardian saying: “Free schools will have to find their pupils from somewhere, preferably poached from existing local schools and shrinking their budgets.” When our founders first applied for Pioneers it was done so due to the extreme level of demand for school places in Boston. At the time I was head of school at Gosberton Academy and had children as young as four being put in a taxi and ferried out to our school at taxpayers’ expense due to a lack of school places in Boston. The free school movement has allowed us to secure a new school for my hometown and one which has the freedom to respond to the needs of the pupils of the town.