The recent GCSE results have vindicated free schools for their tireless efforts, says Unity Howard. But there’s more to the movement than warm-strict discipline

The much-anticipated GCSE results of the first cohort of students at Michaela Community School in north London showed the power of their headteacher’s vision of a highly academic curriculum and warm-strict discipline. Across every subject more than 50 per cent of grades were level 7 or above, against a national average of 21 per cent. Katharine Birbalsingh’s determination and belief in this approach has transformed the lives of her students, with results even the most ardent of opponents would struggle to criticise.

It is right that Michaela’s achievements are publicly celebrated. But the school is, in fact, just one of more than 500 free schools – 61 of them opening for the first time this month.

Much has been made of their very “traditional” approach to behaviour, and it’s fair to say that Michaela’s results aren’t a huge surprise, given that clear and consistent behaviour policies are integral to school success. In fact, they have been a feature of the free school policy to date, with new schools challenging what had become the status quo on behaviour.

Of the free schools Ofsted has inspected, 39 per cent have been rated outstanding for behaviour, compared with 17 per cent for all other schools. This means that free schools are more than twice as likely to score the highest grade for behaviour.

This summer, 65 per cent of students at Bedford Free School achieved grade 4 or higher in English and maths. At Jane Austen College in Norwich, part of the Inspiration Trust where teachers have a similarly “warm-strict” approach to behaviour, it was 75 per cent. In the same trust, Ofsted rated Charles Darwin primary, in the same trust, as outstanding in all categories. Its teachers were commended for having the highest expectations of behaviour, and a consistent approach aimed at increasing pupils’ self-discipline and responsibility.

However, the true advantage of the free school programme is that there is no need for conformity in behaviour policies. Rather, it allows for a wide variety of approaches across different schools, determined by the leaders that run them. Many take a vastly different approach to behaviour and prove that a school fostering a softer approach to boundaries and an ethos of encouragement can thrive.

Many schools prove that a softer approach can thrive

XP School in Doncaster, where the focus is on character development delivered through cross-subject expeditionary learning, 86 per cent of students received grade 4 or higher in English language and history. Similarly, 72 per cent of pupils at Wye School in Ashford, Kent, received grade 4 or higher in five or more subjects. The school has developed an imaginative and positive behaviour policy, which is well understood by all and is becoming effectively embedded.

Fundamentally, the free school policy offers every new school the ability to foster a strong ethos with clear behavioural policies from day one. The vision behind the school takes years of development and honing, and is rigorously challenged as a key facet of the application and assessment process.

It is this clarity and consistency that presents the conditions for schools to thrive, regardless of the approach they adopt – whether that is a Michaela-like model or something more akin to XP in Doncaster.

The point is this: free schools have quickly become a beacon of new ideas and driven improvement across education. Where teachers once felt powerless to challenge the system and implement their own ideas, they can now take control of their dream school; communities can demand more for their children and reject the failed approaches of the past to create something different and better, tailored to their needs.

These schools have used their freedoms to thrive and whether their behaviour model is based on tough love or handing out tokens for good behaviour, we should celebrate them. What’s more important is that we protect the founding vision of the free school policy: giving teachers, leaders and communities the opportunity to define what works for their pupils.