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02 January 2014

A school of many colours

A school of many colours

Trinity School is the only free school in the UK led by churches of different denominations. How did they do it and will it act as an inspiration to others? Richard Woodall finds out…

"We use restorative justice with a focus on grace and love rather than punishing pupils and telling them off," says Matthew Tate, the 38-year-old headteacher of Trinity Schools, Sevenoaks.

"Children are made in the image of God and extremely special to him. That underlines everything we do." 

In September, Trinity School – the only 'free school' in the UK led by churches from across denominations – welcomed its first pupils and joined more than 170 other free schools that opened in England in the past two years. Free schools are a key plank of the coalition's education policy and as such Trinity has benefited from a £300,000 grant.

But as a school supported by a wide range of denominations, Trinity is breaking new ground and symbolising the unity of the body of Christ. Anglicans, Methodists,Baptists, United Reformed and Newfrontiers have all played a part in establishing it. 

Talk of not punishing children but instead helping to guide them to a greater sense of justice and morality would probably be seen as touchy-feely by some but it just emphasises how leaders at the school want education to be more than gaining a piece of paper with a qualification on it.

"We use something in our curriculum called 'What If Learning'", Matthew tells me. "This is all about how we can influence children to have a different mindset than they might have from a standard curriculum.

"Traditionally, when children learn a language they learn how to complain about something, how to buy things or how to ask for directions but they don't learn any core values such as hospitality and how, for example, they might be able to relate to others from another country. In our German lessons, we teach pupils how they might be a blessing to people from Germany. 

"It's not about adding Bible verses to the existing curriculum, it's how can we make sure our community is built up? We want Christianity to be at the core of what we do as a school."

And since 4 September, this is what the 92 year seven pupils have been part of. 

Addressing concerns voiced recently by the Liberal Democrats about the need to make sure free schools teach the national curriculum and have fully-qualified teachers, Matthew says: "All of our teachers are qualified. Our curriculum is broadly the same as the national curriculum; we add to it rather than take away. I've worked in schools that are in special measures and have turned them around.

"My skillset is making sure children achieve. We give them opportunities to serve in their communities – packing bags at Tesco or picking up litter. We want our pupils to have an influence outside school too."

The school's current location until September is on the site of former office blocks which have been renovated. Along with the latest technology, the school has eight classrooms including a science laboratory, library, worship hall and music room. Pupils are also able to use facilities at a leisure centre in the town.

But with the number of pupils set to expand year-on-year, there will not be enough space within two years' time. The school plans to move to the site of a former school in the town to solve this. 

Bill Lattimer, chair of the governors of Trinity School, says the original idea for a Christian school stretched back to 2010 when he and two others met to pray about establishing a school. 

A working group was established and a planning application drawn up in May 2011. This was then submitted the following February to the Department for Education before being approved last July. There are now 27 churches from every colour and creed supporting the school and taking an interest in its running.

"The point about this school is that it is a non-denominational group of churches," Bill says. "We are not formally linked with a denomination. This is very much a bottom up locally led organisation. Half of the churches are Anglican, two are Methodist, three Baptists, one is Newfrontiers, two are independent and there is a United Reformed too. The Catholic school are supportive of us too."

Describing how it started off, headteacher Matthew says: "A small group of Christians believed God gave them a vision for a Christian school in Sevenoaks. They prayed about it and then got others involved with the idea.

"It's quite hard to get parents to agree to send children to a school that does not exist at the time. A third of our intake come from a Christian background. But Sevenoaks is also an 11-plus area. If your child doesn't pass the 11-plus test, there is limited choice. Faith schools have got good results."

Reverend Chris Smith, aged 41, is rector at St Botolph's in Chevening, and was one of the three people who believed God had a vision for a Christian school in Sevenoaks. He says: "I moved to Chevening from the north-east and it became apparent no one was going to a local secondary school – as a newcomer I thought that was very strange.

"My hope as an Anglican vicar was that a new school would be a Church of England school. But God had something more important in mind. I think it's given the local churches a real lift. What free schools do is give local people a chance to make a difference. There is an enormous opportunity when churches work together."

Can Trinity School act as an inspiration to other groups of churches to do the same?

"It already is," says Matthew. "We have had three other Christian groups visit us already who are interested in doing the same. I have found it really exciting being part of Trinity School. I've always believed that when there is unity in the Church we can do great things. This is the fruits of that unity as different churches work together."

Free schools, which are monitored by Ofsted, can be set up by groups of parents, charities, religious groups or businesses once a business plan and demand is demonstrated. Headteachers have more control over the curriculum, teachers' pay and the length of school terms.

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