Gerry McDonald outlines the reasons and  process behind his college’s application to open a free school and considers why it was turned down.

The ability of FE to redefine itself is perhaps its defining characteristic. This can, of course, serve us well in challenging times when funding and competitive pressures make it difficult to hold on to treasured notions of an immutable core.

Dame Ruth Silver’s adaptive layer has become a shorthand for describing a sector that often finds definition illusive. And maybe that’s no bad thing. Adaptation requires creative thinking and new approaches and that is where FE excels.

Adaptation is more necessary now than ever before. Not least because the traditional boundaries between the buildings blocks of the education system are in flux. It was not surprising therefore that the governors of Tower Hamlets College, opposite Canary Wharf, that icon of regeneration, decided to take a radical approach to defining our mission and how we should deliver it. The notion that we should pursue a free school application took shape.

Our decision to apply to open a free school wasn’t politically motivated. It was pragmatic

The idea wasn’t formed in a vacuum. In 2014, we applied for, and were granted, direct entry at 14. With strong support from our local authority, we shaped an innovative programme for migrant families, mostly newly arrived in the UK with a child aged 14 or 15 to benefit from an intensive English-focused programme. Our first cohort made rapid progress with 89 per cent achieving grade C in maths, in just one year.

It is worth saying that our decision to apply to open a free school wasn’t politically motivated. It was pragmatic. We are a good college with outstanding business and Esol provision and strong finances. But these attributes would not protect us from new entrants to the crowded London education market or protect our shrinking core.

The process of establishing a free school is best described in two stages. The first is setting up your group and forming a company to act as the legal entity for the new school. That was straightforward. The college’s business and community clients and contacts proved a rich source of expertise and we were able to quickly bring together experienced professionals, giving us the breadth of practical support required.

The difficulty then is ensuring the right level of separation from the college. In theory the school is quite separate and operates at arm’s length. In reality, the college is the prime mover and de facto sponsor. The divide could be seen as rather artificial.

More difficult was establishing the need for our proposed school. We were clear about the specialism — business and finance — representing our location and curriculum expertise. The challenge is establishing actual parent need. This involved asking parents of 8 and 9-year-olds to send their child to an as yet unbuilt school when they reach 11. A tough sell indeed. We got there because our strong proposition about linking educational opportunity to jobs in businesses and finance was convincing. Canary Wharf is within Tower Hamlets but has some way to go in recruiting the borough’s residents.

We have made strong progress including placing more than 50 young people into paid year-long internships with a major accounting firm but there is more to do. Parents we spoke to appreciate that and what our new school could offer.

As reported in FE Week last week, our bid didn’t get through. I don’t see a conspiracy against FE here. Feedback was clear and fair and we have been asked to resubmit in October. We need to show how the specialism will be delivered throughout the school and bring a current secondary head teacher on to our board. Fair enough.

Should colleges pursue free schools? That’s hard to answer for the whole sector; so much depends on local demography and need. Our view is that redefining FE’s mission across age ranges and historical sector divides is a necessary evolution at a time of funding challenge.