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Norwich free school gets ready to open its doors

Principal Tania Sidney-Roberts and vice principal Darren Webster at the pioneering Free School which is about to open in Norwich.; Photo: Bill Smith

Principal Tania Sidney-Roberts and vice principal Darren Webster at the pioneering Free School which is about to open in Norwich.; Photo: Bill Smith

Archant © 2011

The principal of The Free School Norwich has revealed it will be the very first school of its type to open anywhere in the country when pupils pass through the doors for the first time in two weeks.

The finishing touches to the primary school, in a former Aviva building in Surrey Street, is one of around a dozen free schools expected to open their doors next month.

But principal Tania Sidney-Roberts says the Norwich one will be the very first one to open and unique in that most of the others are in temporary homes.

The school will welcome its inaugural pupils – 96 of them – on Monday, September 5 and Mrs Sidney-Robert said: “We are looking forward to opening our doors to the first cohort and many hundreds of children for many years to come.

“It’s been busy, but we set a target for when we would be open and we have stuck to it. It’s gone remarkably smoothly and I’ve had a fantastic team of people who have worked with us.”

Free schools are being introduced by education secretary Michael Gove and, earlier this summer, he singled out the Norwich model as an example for others to follow.

Set up by parents, companies or charities, they are funded directly by Whitehall, are free to attend, and set their own curriculum, opening times and holidays.

The idea has sparked controversy, with teaching unions claiming the cash to set them up comes from other education funds which have been frozen by the government, meaning other schools lose out.

The building costs of the Free School Norwich were £700,000 and, while Mrs Sidney-Roberts says Department for Education rules mean she cannot reveal the total cost, she said it had come in under budget.

The school will cater for primary-age pupils aged four to 11. Unlike most schools, it will be open 51 weeks a year, from 8.15am to 5.45pm six days a week.

An extended school scheme means that, for a fee, pupils can be looked after between 8.15am to 8.45am and from 3.45pm to 5.45pm during term time.

Pupils from reception year and years one, two and three, will be the year groups starting next month and Mrs Sidney-Roberts revealed it was quite literally a lottery as to which children won a place.

She said: “We were four times oversubscribed and it was a case of random allocation. We got Norfolk County Council’s schools admissions team in and had a lottery.

“We had four crates of names and picked them out. It really was a case of picking names out of a hat, other than the siblings whose brothers or sisters had already got a place.

“We’ve got a mix of all abilities, faiths and special needs.”

She said pupils were coming from all over Norfolk – including Great Yarmouth, Diss, Aylsham and Sheringham, as well as from Norwich. The principal said that showed the demand for a new type of school and added she was looking at the possibility of opening other schools in Norwich and further afield.

She said: “I am now working with a group in Leeds which is based on the same model as this one and we are putting in a proposal for that next spring.

“But we definitely need to look at expanding here in Norwich because the demand is massive. We have had to disappoint so many parents and children who wanted places.

“With the government saying they want to see this replicated, it makes sense to look to expand the idea elsewhere.”

When the Evening News was given a tour of the Grade II listed building, the eight classrooms were just waiting for furniture to be delivered.

The library and kitchen were taking shape and work was continuing on the play area and garden outside. A new lift shaft was being installed, while on the stairs, Norwich artist Brian Korteling was working on a mural of a tree.

Mrs Sidney-Roberts said she had also recruited her team of about 20 fully qualified staff after a rigorous interview process.

She said: “This is something which I’ve wanted to do for years and which I’ve actually been working on for the past year. We are all ready to go and looking forward to opening.”

Do you have an education story? Call Evening News education reporter Vic Leggett on 01362 854703 or email victoria.leggett@archant.co.uk

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