ON Boxing Day 2011, when most people were polishing off Christmas leftovers and watching The Great Escape for the umpteenth time, Sherry Zand had a decision to make.
Four days earlier, at a hotel in Brandon, she’d told a panel of education providers why she was the right person to run their new venture on the site of the soon-to-be defunct Breckland Middle School.
But back at her home in Surrey, she was now trying to decide whether, at the age of 35, to go from her job of three and a half years into the first headship of her 14-year teaching career.
What’s more, the job was at a Free School, and was to be one of the first of its kind, run by a privately-owned education provider. The provider, International English Schools (IES), was based in Sweden and this was its first foray into the English education system.
Fast forward nine months and we are sat in the grounds of IES Breckland Free School, days before the school’s opening, outside a building that has been transformed in just three weeks from a torn and tattered shell into an educational facility ready to welcome more than 200 children in Years 7, 8 and 9.
With Free Schools hot on the political agenda, reminders of the previous tenants at every turn, and refurbishments going to the wire, is she feeling the strain?
“I’d be foolish to say there haven’t been times when I’ve been pulling my hair out and having endless sleepless nights worrying. What I don’t want is for Monday to come and for us not to fulfil our promise.
“We know everyone is watching us so there is added pressure there, but it’s so exciting and the opportunities are endless. We are here to learn and listen and make sure we do this right.”
IES Breckland is one of 55 Free Schools to open in England this month. Borne out of Education Secretary Michael Gove’s appreciation of Swedish and US approaches, the Free School model, wherein it is possible for groups – including, parents, teachers, charities or businesses – to set up a school, has faced a wave of criticism since its introduction by the Coalition Government in 2010.
But it also has its staunch advocates, who point to increases in choice and a varied curriculum as benefits. It’s a view taken by IES, and Ms Zand concurs.
“It gives us a bit more creativity, more scope to not be as rigid as mainstream schools, but obviously we know that at the end of the line our children still have to get the same grades and qualifications and the same benchmarks still apply.
“It’s about making the curriculum diverse and exciting but knowing that, at the end of the day, we have to get the kids the grades they need and make sure they leave being well-rounded, respectable young adults.”
So what will IES’ approach be? Barbara Bergström, the company’s founder, believes that children respond to strongly-enforced boundaries – commonly known as ‘tough love’.
Ms Zand says her experiences of teaching in the private sector have shown her it’s an approach that has value.
“Calm, quiet classrooms, a constructive learning environment where teachers can actually teach – you see that everyday in the private sector.
“Children are taught right from their entrance that they will respect this environment, they will respect us and we will respect them.
“They are treated as young adults because that is what they are growing up to be.”
What does that approach do for children?
“It gives them confidence, self-esteem, raises their morale and gives them drive and commits them to their learning and their community.
“You begin to see school as an extended family and that really is what we are trying to achieve here because it’s a small school, it’s a small environment and we want kids to come here and feel safe.”
That environment will take time to foster and Ms Zand is aware of the ill-feeling that arose after none of Breckland Middle School’s teachers were kept on – including members of Sabres, the group that campaigned successfully to keep the school open.
The new staff are ‘confident and raring to go’, she says, and feature a mix of experienced older heads and younger staff –including three newly-qualified teachers (NQTs).
She says staffing decisions were made ‘with my head, not my heart’, for the good of the children, and asks for patience.
“We know nobody likes change. It’s difficult, it’s a challenge, but we are here to support people through it. It’s a new school, it might be on the old site but it’s a new school.
“Let us start, get our foot in and our first half-term under our belts.
“We aren’t going to say that nothing will go wrong because this is a new school so things may very well go wrong.”
Despite those negative murmurings, local reaction has been largely positive.
Halfway through our conversation, a postman interjects to wish the new principal luck for the opening – a common occurrence in the last few weeks, according to Ms Zand.
Indeed, the school’s community ties, rooted in the campaigning of the Sabres group and the support of Matthew Hancock, MP for West Suffolk, show that locally there is more love than hate surrounding the school’s opening.
Taking that enthusiasm into the challenges ahead will be essential, with students looking forward to a revamped curriculum and facilities.
The opportunity to link-up with IES’ sister schools in Sweden will also be exploited, with teachers and staff likely to cross the North Sea to spend time learning the Scandinavian approach.
Away from the school, Ms Zand admits she is still learning about Brandon and settling into Suffolk life.
It may be a change of environment, but she says it won’t change her approach to teaching.
“Children are children, they love to learn and to succeed, and love to know that somebody cares about them.
“Teachers are here to share our knowledge – not to show that we are superior or cleverer but to open doors for them and help them to open doors for themselves.”