Luton, a large town about 30 miles north of London, is the site of the Barnfield Federation, a coalition that includes Barnfield College (16 years upwards), Barnfield South and West Academies (11-18 years), the country’s first further-education-sponsored Studio School (14-18 years enterprise academy) and Barnfield Moorlands Primary School (4-11 years). This cluster of schools and satellites around them, enrolling some 27,000 students, recreates the role of local councils in private hands.
In a fascinating and highly engaging presentation, the chief executive of the federation, Sir Peter Birkett, described a program in which Barnfield took over two under-performing schools in 2007 and in a matter of years transformed them, through charter-like approaches, to take the schools out of “special measures”(oversight by the government) to a position in which the number of satisfactory GCSE scores have more than tripled. Ofsted, the government agency responsible for accountability and standards, judges the two schools today to be “outstanding” and “good.”
Birkett described a focus on eliminating a culture of blame (of students, parents, and communities) and replacing it with a culture of high expectations, support for student needs, and a commitment to a sense of community and standards. The federation, which has made no secret of its hopes to run these schools for profit in the future if legislation permits, has created a structure in which its scale permits it to commission support services at lower cost – passing the savings on to lower class sizes and pay-for-performance schemes that provide one-time, equal, bonuses to all employees for achieving institutional goals.
The Barnfield Studio School for 14- to 18-year-olds emphasizes vocational education. The school is heavily entrepreneurial with a Principal, Mark Cronin, who is willing to make micro-loans (which have to be repaid) for any promising business plan presented by a student. One student makes and sells cookies; another has a shoe-shine business; yet a third plans to complete university studies and enter the banking industry. The school has a florist’s shop, gift shop, hair salon, and a pizza parlor attached to it — all providing students with work experience. It forges close links with local businesses in an effort to provide jobs in the retail, hospitality or service industries.
“Academy schools,” said Birkett, “were designed to turn around failing schools. Former Prime Minister Blair wanted to inject the DNA of the business world into education. We wanted to attack the blame culture and support traditional values such as hard work in a modern culture.” Noted Cronin: “We believe that small is beautiful. One size does not fit all. We aim to really personalize instruction for each student.”