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West London Free School: will strict state schools work in the UK?

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Luke, Online English teacher at Acadsoc.

Luke, Online English teacher at Acadsoc.

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At the heart of any nation, any civilization is the educational system. It is of popular opinion that the greatest of future leaders are born and bred in the classroom – highlighting the importance of education in any society. Another measure of any society’s prospects of improvement or success is how its state institutions are run. The most prominent of societies have well-run state institutions that are of a standard that is considerably higher than most private institutions. A few examples of such societies with well-run state institutions include Finland, Switzerland, Singapore, New Zealand and China, just to name a few. However, there are schools here and there that tend to shed a new light on the state education conversation in countries not mentioned, like England. The United Kingdom boasts a collection of sought-after universities, colleges, and foundation schools. Oxbridge is one of the world’s most prominent university cluster, attracting students from every single continent on earth. At foundation level, however, there is a school which from its conception in 2011, has become one of the most talked about schools in all of Great Britain[1] – West London’s Free School. The school, located in Hammersmith, West London and has a coeducational enrollment, with free quality education at the heart of its conception. With ‘access’ as one of its core founding pillars, West London Free School has gained a great deal of attention, not only from London itself but from all of Great Britain.

Strictest among all state schools in the UK? Will that be as strict as Chinese public schools?

West-London-Free-School-LogoSapere Aude is the Latin phrase term for “Dare to know” and it can be found on the school’s crest. It can also be loosely translated as “Dare to be wise”, or even more loosely as “Dare to think for yourself!”[2] This phrase is very important as it embodies the challenge that the school poses to every single one of its students – to be limitless in their quest to be the best that they can be.

Focusing on the traditional aspects of education, that being English, Mathematics, Sciences, Arts, and Humanities, the school is one of the most talked about schools in London. At the heart of the school, is music and sport, which allows the students to bond with each other in a very keen way – students who wouldn’t normally interact with one another in the classroom, can build friendships through music and on the field, and, they can even learn to help each other when they find difficulties in the classroom. The school’s ethos is teaching and learning at a very high level and standard, that means that its teachers are subject specialists and that means even the students have more trust in their expertise, driving them to go even further in their quest to reach their targeted grades. Adopting the free education theme, the school, and its founder, Toby Young, have not gone without their own challenges – however, the future of this school, one of the very few of its kind, looks very bright as it has made its mistakes very early and is finding its feet sooner rather than later. The school has such a competitive nature coupled with a strict discipline of focus – its students have no option to be on their A-game at all times – something unpopular in the conventional London public schools where students are not pushed beyond their limits. In all, this makes the school one unique environment, where students are able to set goals and have no option but to achieve them.

West London Free School: will strict state schools work in the UK?The students at the school relish its ability to use the arts and sport as a mechanism to build character and discipline – which even extends into the classroom. In an interview with AFP News Agency, two students, Hope and Louis, both eleven-year-olds enrolling at the school, expressed their excitement at the new possibilities that exist in this fairly new school. The students expressed just how ‘cool’ it will be to learn in a different way and have different holidays and compared with other conventional schools. With more than half of the school’s pupils able to play one or more musical instruments, the students are generally eager to merge the discipline and dedication it takes to learn a new instrument, with learning a new topic in a subject. The school has developed an extra-curricular programme that boasts nine sporting disciplines, ensuring that more students are participating in activities that will help them de-stress and have their minds ready for the following school day. All-in-all, when it comes to being part of West London Free School, its pupils wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

West London Free School was criticised in The Guardian for planning to make its permanent site Palingswick House in Hammersmith, a building then occupied by a number of community groups[3] that ranged from rights groups to centres for special needs individuals. The school has also been criticized in terms of discipline and strictness instilled by Toby Young’s statement in an interview where he stated that ‘Letting children run wild and play is romantic rubbish that entrenches inequality’.[4] The statement was met with so much scrutiny as critics saw it as a way the school was limiting the students’ freedom and that its founder, Toby Young did not have the students’ best interests at heart.

West London Free School: will strict state schools work in the UK?However, in an admission, Toby Young did express that he may have underestimated the dire consequences of running a school like West London Free School – showing character and stepping down as CEO with the students’ best interests at heart.Throughout the tumultuous seven years that the school has been in operation, its lessons are rapid and are somewhat expected. When a school such as this one first comes into the picture, there are many people who have an opinion – be it the local community, be it the media, be it stakeholders or even the regulators. A vast majority of the school’s criticism comes from people who don’t seem to understand the direction that the school is taking, and the only way for them to know is to let the school run its course.

Similarities and Differences of UK state schools compared with Chinese State SchoolsThere exists a need for the international educational system to learn from one another. That means consulting with one another in such a way that not only benefits the schools’ public perception and/or popularity but in a way, that benefits the students in a positive way in the end. When we look at the Chinese public schooling system, it can be likened the phrases such as hard work, dedication, and discipline – similarities it shares with West London Free School. On the one hand, however, one system employs competitiveness of a friendly nature, and the other, a rivalry that can last way beyond the classroom. West London’s Free School employs a nature of competition within the students themselves as individuals. It promotes the setting of goals by students and challenging oneself to achieve those goals. On the other hand, the Chinese educational system can be likened to the ‘survival of the fittest’ notion where students are in competition with each other rather than with themselves. Both these strategies breed results, but for one of them, students may lose the essence of what school should be – a place of learning and growing, rather than a place of nothing but a strict diet of work on top of more work. One thing is certain, however, that the public schools in Britain need serious reform – the reason Chinese students are so good at science and mathematics is that they are used to hard work from an early age, so challenges are things they can manoeuvre around easily when they get older. A school is a place where students learn many life lessons, that is why students that come from China dominate wherever they go.

With various disciplines adopted in the last seven years, West London Free School has paved a new path for education in the United Kingdom – and, not without its flaws and shortcomings, it does show glimmers of hope here and there. The school is young, and will still learn through making mistakes – however, the school’s adopted notion of ‘competitiveness with self’ is something that most schools can learn from. Not segmenting students through aptitude, and allowing students to work in a way that yields the best results for them, is a huge plus for students who are constantly benchmarked with one another. The future is bright, and with the school having an influence on its curriculum construction, who knows if they will employ the services of online education companies such as Acadsoc in the near future?

[1] http://www.wlfs.org/Headteachers-Message/

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sapere_aude

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2011/jan/17/young-free-school-groups-refugees?INTCMP=SRCH

[4] https://www.standard.co.uk/news/education/toby-young-letting-children-run-wild-and-play-is-romantic-rubbish-that-entrenches-inequality-9606636.html

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