Smallest school has big ambition

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CITY schoolchildren could sit down to lessons in former pubs, libraries or even industrial units if ambitious plans for a new free school gain popular support.

Sheffield’s smallest school has big ideas that could turn it into the area’s first Christian free school, with 1,000 pupils at ten centres citywide.

The move is a leap of faith for Bethany School, based at Netherthorpe, which currently has 96 pupils aged four to 16.

The vision of governors is to use the school as a model for nine others across the city, putting a moral, family-led education at the heart of every community. Any available building would be considered, from disused offices or bars to a warehouse or even a large home.

But first they must establish that there is a demand for such a radical new option for state education in the city.

“Our school has been successful for 25 years; we’ve got a proven track record and we feel we’ve got something to offer,” said headteacher Ken Walze.

“If Sheffield grabs hold of this as an idea it could have a big impact on the city.”

Bethany School was founded by a group of church-goers in 1986, starting with 12 pupils and one teacher in a church basement.

Over the years it has expanded to full capacity, with a maximum of eight children in each year group, eight full-time teachers and its own home in the former St Stephen’s Primary.

It operates on four core values: Christian education, family involvement, family scale (small, close-knit groups) and community involvement.

Bethany has already set up one off-shoot: the Emmaus Christian Family School opened on Psalter Lane in 2006.

Now it is proposing a massive expansion, creating nine new sites, each catering for up to 100 children, which would combine to create a single Sheffield Christian Free School.

The move was prompted by the Government’s flagship education programme which promotes the idea of free schools where there is local demand.

As such, the new school would receive state funding – which Bethany does not have – bringing it into the state sector.

It would retain autonomy over its curriculum and staffing, but would have to conform to Sheffield admissions procedures and would be subject to Ofsted inspections. This would be no obstacle to the Bethany team, whose last report praised the family approach to education, adding that Christian beliefs formed a central thread but the school provided a good all-round education, with some outstanding features.

GCSE results are consistently good. Over the past 17 years an average 83% of pupils have gained good grade passes in English, 80% in science and 71% in maths.

The school encourages parental involvement: each Wednesday afternoon is family led and can involve anything from baking to horseriding. Every summer the entire school, including their families, goes away for a week’s camp.

Bethany families have been consulted about the proposals and 75% have given their backing.

Sheffield’s education director Dr Sonia Sharp has been kept in touch with the plans, as has children’s commissioner Maggie Williams.

This week Mr Walze wrote to local church leaders, laying out his plans and seeking their support.

His next step is to assess demand for the new school – and to this end an online survey has been set up, giving people citywide a chance to express their support.

Possible sites will be earmarked in areas where there are most potential pupils and a formal application will then be submitted in May 2012.

The result should be announced by the August, giving governors and parents a year to prepare for opening in September 2013.

To take part in the survey visit: www.sheffieldchristianfreeschool.org.uk