Every journey has a starting point. For the new Chichester Free School that point was at a governor’s kitchen table.
It was there that interim principal Jenny Clough and other founders planned out their school and worked on their submission to the Department for Education.
Five years in a temporary home, at Vinnetrow Road, followed but now the school has hit the final straight.
It is on track to move permanently into the converted and expanded Carmelite Convent in Hunston, in September – and its new home will include a sixth-form.
Mrs Clough, pictured right, said: “We’ve been to visit it a couple of times now and I’ve been told we’re absolutely on track and we’re very much in close contact with the building firm.
“It’s very exciting to go in there and see the spaces come to life.”
Those spaces mix the very old with the very new. The convent was built in 1872 and, while its interior was stripped, much of the structure has been incorporated into the new build, leaving students with a palpable sense of history.
The new building is big enough for 1,280 students, though fewer than 800 currently attend the Free School. By September, that figure will be just over 1,000.
The students will enter the school on the back of some good results. Last year’s Key Stage 4 cohort earned the fifth highest results in the county for the tough new English and maths GCSEs, far exceeding the local and national averages.
Mrs Clough said: “We’re really chuffed we’ve kicked off in that way. There was lots of hard work by all concerned.”
But she is realistic about the challenges for this year – after all, only 29 students sat the exams in 2017. That figure will continue to rise until the school reaches full capacity.
Mrs Clough added: “I’m not going to hang the whole world on that but it’s a very good start.”
Another person no doubt hoping for a good start is Steven Apsey, the newly appointed head of sixth-form.
His first intake will see 30 to 40 students studying A levels, rising to 120 to 130 in each year group at full capacity.
He said: “It’s a really exciting opportunity to be able to come into somewhere and shape the vision.”
The sixth-formers will have access to a common room in one of the wings of the old convent building, as well as a separate study room.
Mr Apsey said: “We’re hoping we’re going to build on the academic success of the lower school. The vision is to marry the academic challenge with the ethos of the school.”
Chichester Free School’s journey to its new home has not been without the odd bump in the road. Delays saw its original opening target date of September 2017 come and go, and then Guy Martyn, its founder head, left to join an independent school in Essex.
Mrs Clough, though, said the school was ‘in my DNA now’ and has no intention of disappearing once a permanent principal is appointed.
She said: “I’m very much here to see us into the convent and I’m here to guide and advise.”
As for the future of the school, she said the team was determined not to rush things, adding: “We’re quite realistic about not over-stretching what we’re doing and getting it right. Really just to carry on the good work and to carry on building and embedding the culture we’ve built up.”
The school’s motto ‘Nurture. Challenge. Inspire.’ is reflected in the principal’s belief that ‘academics matter but the whole child matters too’.
Mrs Clough is also determined to help the youngsters develop by continuing to forge strong links with the community.
She said: “Our children are really engaging with the community and we’re very keen for our children to get involved with things and build themselves as people.
“It’s very important that we can open our doors and welcome people in. That’s a very important aspect – to reach out and help other people.”
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