Once the Hewett School goes, what options are left?
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What options are left once Norwich’s last community-ran secondary school goes? Turns out, a few

A few months ago, the Department for Education ordered the Hewett School to shape up and academise. The proposed change came back in November following the decision from Ofsted to put the school into special measure. It still isn’t entirely clear whether the decision is final, but with a new headteacher in place and an independent firm hired to carry out a consultation about the plans, the wheels are definitely in motion. Should the plans to academise the school go through, it would mean that there would no longer by any secondary schools in Norwich operating under the local authority.

Lynsey White is a creative writing teacher at the Hewett, and her daughter Lucy was hoping to stick around when she starts her sixth form in September. Now, though, she’s not so sure.

A few months ago, hundreds marched through the Norwich City Centre in protest of plans to turn the Hewett School into an academy.

Weeks later, the Norfolk County Council quietly debated whether or not to legally challenge the Hewett School’s academy conversion.

In the end, they took no action. A hot topic was the land the Hewett School stands on. And that’s a lot of land -- enough to fit three schools, which is what the Hewett used to be. It’s got three gyms, a swimming pool, and a theatre. Lyndsey White used to be a piano teacher at the school, and she was drawn to the school’s reputation for scruffy and opinionated students.

“I'm not one of these people who thinks that children must always be polite and well-mannered. I actually think it's good for children to learn to speak up, and to voice their opinions, in a reasonable and measured way,” White said. “I think that actually one of the things that the Hewett does quite well is listen to, or did do quite well, is listen to the children, and let them have a bit of a say in their own education.”

Her daughter Lucy, goes to Hewett, and she’s attracted to the school’s artistic ethos. Some of her favorite classes are film studies and photography.
“So that was why we chose the school, really, for one reason. We also, and that's the silly thing but we kind of liked the uniform,” White said. “It's got a very distinctive burgundy uniform that's instantly recognisable. If you're from Norwich, you know the Hewett kids as soon as you see them.”

White’s worry is that if the Hewett School becomes an academy, the Hewett students will become unrecognizable.

“It's not just for that reason. I really worry about this target-based approach to education that's coming in. It's coming in by the back door, and I don't think people are really aware of how wide-ranging and swinging it actually is,” White said. “What's happening is that your children are being viewed as the targets, almost as if they were customers or sales figures in a board room. You can't ask teachers... you can't blame teachers if they can't always achieve the targets that are set by the school, because these are individual children we're talking about.”

Last November, after the Hewett School was given an inadequate rating by Ofsted, the Government chose the Inspiration Academy Trust as the preferred sponsor of the Hewett School. That’s how academies work: they get funding from the central government, lose ties with local authority, and are sometimes sponsored by a trust, who help run the school.

In an official statement, a spokesperson for the Inspiration Trust said that they were committed to helping Hewett’s kids get the best exam results possible. But, while she admits the Hewett School has had its share of problems, she wants more from the school than just good exam results.

“We've had some issues with the school. I don't want to pretend that it's a perfect school by any means, as that just wouldn't be true, but if you find a perfect school anywhere, I'd be interested to know where that school is,” Lynsey said.

When her daughter starts sixth form next year, and the Hewett shapeshifts into an academy, she’ll have to either stay put or try to find that perfect school. As the local authority schools like the Hewett decline, the free schools rise.

On a Thursday afternoon, the students at the Norwich Free School are poster children for good students. They are excited to be in school, and hard at work.

When Tania-Sydney Roberts first heard about free schools roughly half a decade ago, she was reminded of the school she dreamed of building when she was a kid. And back in 2011 when free schools were being introduced throughout the country, she’d finally get her chance.


“It was all very sudden and all very exciting and I was just really, really pleased to be given the chance to set up a brand new school from scratch and one that I felt would offer services that were desperately needed by many parents,” Sydney-Roberts said.

Free Schools get their funding from their central government, and have complete freedom from local authority control and the national curriculum. That means those running the school calls the shots when it comes to things like teacher’s pay and the length of term time. Unlike academies, free schools have no sponsor. That freedom was just what Sydney-Roberts needed to create her dream school. But first, she organised meetings with hundreds of parents to find out what they wanted.

“And a very strong need that came out was that this school was wrap around child care, so that parents could go into work in Norwich each day and then not have that awkward problem where their school day finishes at 3.15-3.30 and they’re still at work until 5,” Sydney-Roberts said. “So that was the main message that came across, particularly from single parents trying to hold down a job, but at the same time were struggling with childcare during the holidays as well was also an issue.”
And so Free School Norwich sprang to life. When it opened in 2011, it was one of only 24 free schools in the country. Now, there are hundreds. The school is hugely oversubscribed, with over a hundred children competing for just 25 places in 2013. So, that means, even if Lyndsey decided it was an educational utopia, her daughter might not get a ticket in. Tania is a parent, and she can relate.
“My son's just started high school in September last year so I've been in the process of deciding. I think most parents know their children very well, and they know what kind of environment their child is going to thrive in,” Sydney-Roberts said. “You want to inspire a child. You want someone who is there to motivate, lead, and encourage the child to do well. I don’t think it’s the type of school that matters.”
But unlike Lynsey White, Sydney-Roberts thinks there’s more choices out there than ever before.
“I think there will continue to be a choice. I don't see a day coming where there are no local authority schools, no community schools. I think it would be healthy for the country to offer the range of options for parents. We're not all the same,” Sydney-Roberts said. “This school meets the needs of certain parents. As long as the choice is out there, that's the important thing.”
And yet, as the Hewett School and Sewell Park Academy undergo identity changes, the day without a single school under local authority in Norwich might be just around the corner.
Then there’s home education. You can’t get more local than a mother teaching her child to read at home. Lisa, who did not want to give her surname, spends an average day learning alongside her children. And when you’re between the ages of 6 and 13, the whole world is paved with question marks.
“My six year old, he's quite interested in numbers at the moment, So he comes up to me, saying ‘10 plus 10 plus 10 is 30’, isn't it?” Lisa said.
Once, a common cold turned into a lesson on mucus.
“Awhile back, one of my children had a really bad cold and a TV program happened to come on about germs and mucus. We went on a whole tangent based around that because it linked to the whole experience. A lot of our learning happens through conversation,” Lisa said.
While all home educators do it differently, Lisa prefers to let the lessons flow organically, spontaneously, inspired by the questions her children ask and what they want to learn.
“The law says that the responsibility to educate your children is down to you, and most choose to put that responsibility over to a school. It basically says you need to find education that's appropriate for your child. You don't have to follow the curriculum. You don't have to do any exams,” Lisa said.
That’s the main reason LIsa decided to home educate: to keep her oldest son safe from the huge pressure of the examination room.
“When I was thinking about what kind of school for my eldest, there was a lot of talk of pressure for exams for young children. He was a very nervous child, and I didn't want to do that. I didn't want him under that sort of pressure at that age,” Lisa said. “So we started looking at alternatives. I met some people that had been home educated and that came out the other end.”

But exam proponents see these tests as a necessary evil to measure student’s success. That’s why some government officials are uncomfortable being left in the dark about the progress of the country’s some 34,000 home schoolers. In fact, parents don’t need to ask permission to home educate, and that’s made it impossible to keep track. But for Lisa, the responsibility she faces as a home educator is a responsibility she takes very seriously.

“I think it’s the responsibility, really, that you might let them down,” Lisa said. “I think that’s one of the biggest things. Am I doing the right thing? Are they missing out? I think most people realise as they go on that they can do a good job.”

And her children like being educated at home.

“As time has gone on, we discussed whether or not they wanted to go on at various points. If my youngest son said he wanted to go to school I'd probably say no. If he made the decision two or three years from now that'd probably be fine,” Lisa said.

But at least for now, home is where the school is for Lisa and her children.

But that’s not an option for a lot of parents, like Lynsey White, who might not have the time or money to educate from home. Besides, her daughter wants to go to school. The Hewett School has a sense of community she couldn’t find in her bedroom. But if her daughter Lucy did want to design her own education and take as many art classes as she wanted, and she could always run away to Suffolk to a democratically-ran free school called Summerhill. It’s the first democratically-ran boarding school in Europe. At Summerhill, students are not required to go to any classes and they attend meetings where they vote on the laws of the land.

A.S Neill founded Summerhill, and he’s also Zoe Redhead’s dad. While other parents have shopped around trying to find the perfect school, Summerhill is all Readhead has ever known.

“It's quite difficult for me to comment because it was normal life for me. I grew up here, so this was just how life was. I had a great time, you know, it was a really good life. I can't say every minute was happy because you don't want your life to be happy all the time and it can't be,” Readhead said. “To be an experience it has to have good and bad. But it was a wonderful experience to be here and I think it's really prepared me in a good, all around way for the rest of my life.”

Aside from being a former Summerhill student, she’s also the school’s current headmaster. Her children and their children are students here.

“I was born in the bedroom up there,” Readhead said.

Her dad grew up in Scotland during the 1880s, when beating children was not unusual. He was invited to help set up a progressive school in Dresdon, but then later returned to Suffolk to turn his own home into the school of his dreams.

“And he was able to really communicate with the children, watch them, and he just thought, ‘This is awful. They're afraid. They shouldn't be afraid. Childhood should be a joyful thing’”, Readhead said.

Yet Summerhill still follows the national curriculum and the exams are no less frequent than at any other school in East Anglia. There are hundreds of rules in place, but the difference between Summerhill and most schools is who makes them.

“Everyone has an equal vote. So the youngest child here is five, and their vote counts the same as mine, and I'm the principal. With the meeting cases...we have two kinds...we have cases where you can talk about laws or bring up a problem that you've got,” Readhead said. “So somebody might, say, there are pupils playing football outside my room and the ball keeps hitting the wall. That's a problem for me and we'll discuss that and come up with a law that says you can't play football there.”

One of the key Summerhill principals is that students don’t have to go to classes if they don’t want to. And that rule turns out to matter a whole lot, especially to the Department for Education.

“We did have to go to court in the year 2000 to fight a case against the government. It was a tribunal. Often Ofsted gave us a notice of complaint and said if we didn't comply we'd be struck off the register,” Readhead explained. “In order to comply, we would have to make compulsory lessons. That was the route of our whole philosophy, so we did have to do that. So we did go to court.”

Out of this case came provisions for Summerhill to be inspected using unique criteria, taking in account the school’s philosophy that states that children left to make their own choices are free to grow intellectually and emotionally.

When Ofsted came round in 2011, the school was swept with praise for teaching that was “never less than good, with some outstanding features” and with “learning...closely tailored to match pupils’ individual needs.” Finally, it seemed, Summerhill had won. Life for the Summerhill students has carried on since, with around 60 currently enrolled from all over the world and parents paying around 15,000 pound a year to make sure their children are free. The school comes complete with twelve acres of garden and woodland, plenty of space for hut building, tree climbing, and generally growing up. Nearby, a boy dribbled a basketball while the music instructor played an accordion.

Isabelle Fleischer has been a student at Summerhill for the past seven years.

“Well, there was...a war in Sudan...and my mom said it wasn't safe for my brother and me to stay there. So we had to leave. My dad took us to England and a tour around Europe. Because we had to stay out of Sudan for awhile, he basically said to us, ‘You know, there's a school called Summerhill. Would you like to visit it?’” Fleisher said. “He explained Summerhill to us and then we said, Yeah. We decided to come here straight away.”

Next year, she’ll be going to a college in Rome. She says she doesn’t think she would have been so interested in learning if it weren’t for Summerhill.

“Before I came to Summerhill, I just saw teachers as a person of more authority than me. I enjoy lessons a lot more because I don't feel that I'm less valued, I guess,” Fleisher said. “I think that's gonna carry on for me, especially in college where you're supposed to be more independent anyways.”

While Isabelle discovered her passion at Summerhill, other students have trouble adjusting to a world where they’re not told what to do.

“All the children coming out of here are independent children coming out of here with independent minds. Governments tend to want everybody to get A stars whether they like it or not. So from that point of view, that would be a flaw,” Readhead said. “From our point of view, these are well balanced people making choices about their lives who are feeling really positive about themselves.”

The school may have been built with the vision of Readhead’s dad, but with every meeting and new rule introduced by its pupils, the school changes, if only slightly. Nowadays, Summerhill’s version of freedom even has Ofsted’s stamp of approval. The examinations haven’t gone away. The national curriculum is still there. But it’s up to the students to decide if they want to take part. After all, they might prefer to play outside in the woods, learning about the anatomy of trees, the best techniques for fort building, and just how much power they really have.

But Summerhill comes with a $15,000 pound price tag every year, and not every parent wants to send their child off to boarding school. In fact, according to Zoe, no parents in Suffolk or in Norfolk have chosen to send their children to Summerhill for their education. Lynsey White and her daughter Lucy don’t even want to leave Norwich.

“It would be ideal for me to stay in Norwich. You know, I'm from Norwich originally. I don't see why I should be pushed out of Norwich just because the locally authority has been pushed out of education in Norwich,” Lynsey said.

So what’s left? There’s the free schools: Jane Austen College and Free School Norwich. They’re both schools outside of local authority control. There’s the academies, but White isn’t a fan of the corporate model. There’s home education, but for a working parent and creative writing teacher like Lyndsey, that would be close to impossible. Then there’s Hewett, one of the only remaining schools ran under local authority. More important than what type of school her daughter goes to is what goes on inside.

“We chose the Hewett, because we wanted a particular kind of education: relaxed, focused on the arts. You know, really into nurturing children as individuals,” White said.

Education around Norfolk is constantly shape shifting. Local authority schools are dwindling, and new models are emerging in their place.

Amidst the shuffling and reshuffling, students must carry on learning. Lucy is sixteen, and all she can do is look around, try to understand what all the options mean, and hope that, whatever school she chooses, it’s the right one.

After all, when it comes to education, every choice matters.

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