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Free School FC: the football clubs that are setting up schools

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You might've heard about Derby Pride Academy for two reasons. The first is its impressive achievement of becoming the first alternative provision free school to receive an outstanding rating from Ofsted. The second is its big name connections. The free school was set up with the help of local Championship football team, Derby County FC.

I spoke to Karen Hayes, principal at Derby Pride Academy, about running the school and working alongside the football club. Karen told me about the school’s pride in being associated with the club – the school's logo "carries the club’s ram at the centre of its crest.”

Getting the club involved

The idea for Derby Pride Academy began with Wendy Whelan, the former headteacher of Derby Moor Community Sports College. Karen was part of Wendy’s senior leadership team, with a responsibility for inclusion. She was finding it difficult to find high-quality alternative provision in the area that provided core provision at GCSE level for those working towards achieving A*-C grades.

Alternative provision is for those pupils who have been permanently excluded from a mainstream school. It's also for those pupils who are at risk of permanent exclusion because of behavioural, emotional and social difficulties.

At the time, Derby Moor was in partnership with Derby County in the Community Team, now known as Derby County Community Trust, as well as other community partners. Between them, the idea of an alternative provision free school that emulated (and provided a quick turnaround back into) mainstream education was born. The school opened in 2012 as a joint venture between Derby County Football Club and Derby Pride Trust.

The plan was to share teachers across the alternative provision free school and mainstream schools. Derby Moor Community Sports College remains the free school’s mainstream partner – Karen noted how sharing teachers with a mainstream setting helps to “keep the provision fresh” and keep standards high. The plan paid off. Ofsted said that during their time at Derby Pride, pupils' academic achievement and behaviour rapidly improve. Teaching is exceptional, and the school has outstanding relationships with parents. Thanks to the help of Derby County FC, the curriculum is highly motivating.

Fiction vs. reality

In my childish mind, the thought of a football club setting up a school gives me the idea of a ragtag bunch of players running a school. In particular, I like to imagine it as the England 1998 World Cup squad. Modern footballers are much too ripped and radiant to pass as teachers – no one with all that lesson planning and marking could fit in enough time at the gym to look like Ronaldo.

Around half of the 1998 England squad, however, would not look out of place in a staff room. Tony Adams, Paul Scholes and Teddy Sheringham, all have the look of world-weary middle leaders. Steve McManaman has definite hungover-IT-teacher-who-is-winging-it vibes. Michael Owen’s experience of providing inspirational advice to school children in the short-lived BBC show Hero to Zero makes him the ideal pastoral manager.

David Seaman's occasional difficulty with angles, box plots and areas would make him under-qualified to teach maths. Instead, he'd obviously be a geography teacher. David Seaman has definitely, at one point in his life, explained to someone how an oxbow lake is formed. Nothing pleases David more than looking out upon a glistening tarn on a fresh spring day, a slight breeze causing enough cold on his upper lip to make him miss his moustache.

I never directly asked Karen, but I felt it safe to assume that, in reality, the Derby County first team have very little involvement with day-to-day teaching. Karen did explain, however, that being associated with the football club has brought an array of other advantages.

“The main advantages for us” Karen said, “are the huge network of people and businesses associated with the club, the use of their spaces and the support they give to us in business services and advice.”

She added that when the school started, the Derby County in the Community Team provided a staff member to help with the core PE provision; ”he was so good, and we did not want to lose him, so we asked Derby County if we could take him permanently.”

The governing board of the school also benefits from club involvement. The community lead from the football club’s trust acts as the school’s deputy chair of governors. “His knowledge and vast networking knowledge is invaluable and he is almost always the first port of call for information on who can help us”. He takes a very active role – holding staff clinics, acting as a critical friend, and providing a 360° view of staff morale and wellbeing.

The school also benefits from the use of the football club’s facilities. The stadium and the club’s community offices are walking distance from the school. Derby Pride Academy regularly uses these spaces for “professionals meetings and as a venue for pupil interventions”. The academy also receives help with marketing and advertising. This is an area that is increasingly important for schools, but one where a lot of schools struggle.

A potential PR nightmare

It’s easy to get cynical about a football club opening a free school. The obvious criticism is that this is just a PR stunt for the club. Karen, however, thinks differently. “We are grateful that the club allowed the association. The publicity for them could have been difficult if we had not been as successful as we have been!”.

She’s right. Rather than an easy PR win, setting up a free school is a risk for a club. Independently of each other, free schools and football clubs don’t struggle to attract criticism. If it goes wrong, a free school run by a big-name football club is a magnet for negative news stories.

Everton Free School, the first to be opened by a Premier League football club, was criticised in the national press for only having six pupils when it opened. The school had to clarify that, as an alternative provision free school, its pupil intake came from referrals. Its policies set a limit on the number of referrals it could take each week. As it had only been open for a week, it only had one week’s worth of referrals. Since then, however, Everton Free School has increased the amount of pupils on roll. In 2014, it received a “good” rating from Ofsted.

Other clubs have had less luck in the education sector. In 2014, Bolton Wanderers opened a free school within its stadium, offering vocational courses for 16-19 year olds. Teaching takes place in its corporate hospitality suites and the club’s own chairman helped to develop the curriculum. In September 2016, Ofsted deemed the school inadequate in all areas, noting its culture of low aspirations. Low pupil numbers have now made the school financially unviable. It will close at the end of this academic year.

Tottenham Hotspur FC set up Tottenham UTC, a university technical college that has faced criticism for its cost to the taxpayer. In September 2017, a new sixth-form college, also linked to Spurs, will replace the college.

Learning from Derby

The experience of different football teams’ free schools are indicative of the wider free school programme. Some provide outstanding education in areas where they are much needed, others fail to attract pupils and are not cost effective. A recent report by the National Audit Office explained that while some free schools are addressing the need for more pupil places, others are creating spare capacity and therefore failing to provide value for money.

The lessons we can learn from Derby Pride Academy are therefore universal rather than specific. The academy does not succeed solely because of its link to a football club. Its success is down to being a well-run alternative provision setting that was established in response to a clear local need.

The school's Ofsted report does mention the link with the football club. However, the bulk of the report focuses on the high quality of teaching, the well-planned and stimulating curriculum, the strong relationship between staff and pupils, and the way that everyone involved in the school is committed to helping pupils to improve. Karen mentioned the thought that has gone into the school’s behaviour systems, as well as the importance of ensuring the curriculum replicates mainstream settings to make it easier for pupils to return to this setting.

Given the mixed successes of free schools set up by football clubs, any other teams considering it should look at the example set by Derby Pride Academy. Identify a clear need, work with local schools, and ensure high-quality provision. Also, maybe consider hiring Michael Owen as your pastoral manager.

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