Free schools have had rather a bad press of late. This is understandable: many of them are simply not up to scratch. When children’s futures are on the line, it’s right to be cautious about who is entrusted with their education, and to apply the highest levels of public scrutiny.

Then again, it’s tough to argue that the UK’s approach to education doesn’t need a radical rethink. There are many useful definitions of what education exists to achieve, but helping learners ‘to live creatively and productively in a modern democratic society’ would seem a fair contender. Measured against this objective, by any yardstick our system is failing our children.

Take the world of work. What skills are required to get and stay ahead in almost all 21st century businesses? Creative thinking, collaboration, an ability to communicate within groups, and a high degree of emotional intelligence are all essential (to name but a few). Yet they are neither a direct outcome of much of the teaching that happens in today’s schools, nor even an unintended consequence of it. We have heard teachers describe our national curriculum as “a thousand years of kings and queens”. The phrase is emblematic of an education system that teaches its subjects mainly how to pass exams, not pass muster in the real world.

A free school in Newham, London, set up only three years ago, is quietly blazing a different trail. The emphasis of School 21’s approach is on helping children to acquire the skills that success in the 21st century requires. Classes are built upon a project-based learning system that motivates participants to create and collaborate in order to learn subjects that range from maths to social science. Unique business partnerships are helping to reinvent the tired notion of work experience. Speaking skills are developed by inter-year TED-style talks. Practical criticism from teachers and peers encourages children to strive for constant improvement. Everywhere you look when visiting the school, innovation abounds.

School 21 doesn’t ask children to take entry exams or parents to pay fees. Instead, its staff are focused on helping one of London’s most deprived boroughs. This matters: in finding a way to innovate without the privileges afforded by exclusivity or private wealth, the school is lighting the way to a new approach to education in the UK as a whole.

Indeed, whilst the School itself has just been awarded ‘outstanding’ scores by Ofsted in all categories, it is only part of the story. The 21 Trust, which runs the school and is responsible for popularising its innovations, is embarking on a national campaign to get oracy (speaking skills) on the curriculum, and is starting to make progress in the areas of teacher training and further education.

Perhaps most interestingly of all, Peter Hyman, School 21’s Executive Head, has commented that his organisation’s greatest innovation hasn’t been the teaching methodologies themselves, but “getting teachers to collaborate across disciplines” – something which, astonishingly, isn’t the norm. In that sense, the School itself is a shining example of what it takes to succeed in the 21st century – an understanding that leadership is not about educating people in the old ways of doing things, but about getting the right people on the bus and empowering them to head somewhere new.

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