‘Hot-desking’ school or traditional grammar? Marylebone hosts free schools fight

A “hot-desking” school which uses offices and church halls for classrooms and tracks its students with GPS is one of two secondaries vying to open in Marylebone in 2014.

A second group is hoping to tempt parents to send their boys to a more traditional school offering Latin and concentrating on maths.

The government’s free schools legislation has seen two groups set themselves up to plug the gap in education provision, particularly for boys.

One vision, the Marylebone Free School, would be a co-educational school operating from a “hub” building a quarter the size of most secondaries, using vacant space in “offices, churches, cinemas, historic buildings and music venues” as classrooms.

Technology and the “London curriculum” would be a focus, while students would be issued tablet computers with GPS to track their whereabouts within a virtual campus. International schools operator GEMS Education would run it.

Meanwhile, the Marylebone Boys’ School would use the teaching expertise of St Marylebone CofE School for girls to establish an equivalent, traditional school for boys in premises nearby. It sees itself as a successor to the fondly-remembered St Marylebone Grammar School, which closed in 1981, and would concentrate on teaching English and maths in particular. Latin and philosophy would also feature, with after-school clubs ranging from debating and computer coding to jazz and cooking.

Westminster Council supports both bids, put together by groups of parents and residents with an interest in education desperate for a better offering. The council has already identified a trend of boys leaving the borough’s school system aged 11 and expects to need another 1,500 secondary school places by 2018.

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Both schools have to get their bids to the Department for Education by January 4 to be in with a chance of winning funding and opening in September 2014, but the boys’ school still needs more parents to register their support for the government to consider its bid.

Stephen Rockman, from the Marylebone Free School bid, said Years 9 and above would move through the city from class to class, while younger ones would be based in the ‘hub’ building and always be accompanied outside it.

“I think what makes us unusual is we want to be able to tap into the amazing resources around us,” he said. “We have the London Business School, RIBA, the Sylvia Young Theatre School, Royal Academy of Music and many more all within a 10-minute walk.”

He said that virtual “geo-fences” would enforce campus limits, and a student’s tablet would alert staff if they crossed the boundary during the school day, as well as be their portable learning tool, offering a “digitised curriculum” centred on the English Baccalaureate.

Parents would also be expected to offer their time and professional expertise to pupils in extra-curricular sessions. Former BBC journalist Hugh Fraser, a father of two boys from the rival Marylebone Boys’ School bid, said: “I suppose we see ourselves as a spiritual successor to St Marylebone Grammar School. The stength of our project is that we have got a lot of broad support from the kind of people that matter, and parents really love the idea. They understand the need for the kind of school we are talking about straight away.

“I think our strength is that it’s quite mainstream. We haven’t had people questioning our vision; it’s reaching people that’s difficult, and getting the word out quickly. We are responding to what parents want and bringing in the expertise to do it.”

The school, accepting 120 pupils per year, would “share” teachers with St Marylebone CofE School for girls and operate a joint sixth form on both sites.

Cllr Nickie Aiken, Westminster Council’s cabinet member for children, young people and community protection, said: “We are particularly keen as a local authority to support free school applications where a need has been identified in the community, and in the case of Marylebone we agree there is an emerging demand for additional secondary school places.

“The council is continuing to liaise with two different bidders on the free school plans and is advising on various options, but essentially this is a matter between the successful bidder and the Department for Education.”

For more information on Marylebone Boys’ School, see www.maryleboneschool.com, and for Marylebone Free School see www.marylebonefreeschool.co.uk.