Canary Wharf College strives to meet demand
An Isle of Dogs free school celebrating its first birthday has doubled pupil intake for the new September term, to meet massive demand for places.
Principal Sarah Counter is preparing to lead the second year of teaching at Canary Wharf College, a primary school founded by parents under the Government's Free School Scheme, in the heart of the Docklands.
While the school is funded by the taxpayer, it is independent from state control.
After opening its doors to 60 pupils in 2011 - resulting in the creation of Reception, Year One and Year Two classes - staff are preparing to welcome a further 60 eager young learners next week.
This means both an additional Year One group and the doubling of the size of the Reception class.
For Mrs Counter, creating a free school was an idea 10 years in the making, and one which only came about when she re-located to Tower Hamlets.
"I moved to the borough three years ago and saw the chronic need for more spaces in the borough," she said.
"When Michael Gove gave this unique opportunity, never before in the history of this country has the ordinary man and woman been able to say 'I have an idea for a school, please can I have some money?', I leapt at the opportunity.
"It was very exciting, I think it was just being ready to leap.
"I had always had this vision to be able to offer an independent-style education for free, that's what I wanted."
She added: "Sixty children started last September, and we are doubling the size of the school due to the critical shortage of places in the borough, so there will be a further 60 this year.
"We had 130 applications for 40 reception places - that shows the desperate need in the borough for more places, which the Local Authority is doing its best to address.
"The problem is the borough is also quite big.
"Some children, because of shortage of places in some areas have to be transported to school every day.
"It's at four-years-old level where the big issue is the chronic shortage of spaces.
"I have no children of my own - I just saw a need and I wanted to help the borough out.
"I have tried to meet that need which is why we have doubled the intake so quickly."
To boost the availability of pupil places in the borough, Mrs Counter suggested that developers should be encouraged to pump cash into education when they are granted permission to build in the area, whether that be through planning conditions or otherwise.
"The money that is given for education needs to go directly to the education department in Tower Hamlets," she added.
"Whether Tower Hamlets chooses to put it in free schools or others, that's one way which I can see developers would be in line with the growing population of young children.
"Any way of getting the money to provide more spaces for children has got to be addressed."
When it reaches its full capacity, the school will be fully-equipped to accommodate 280 young learners.
But already, it is beginning to show signs of strong academic success.
The early years foundation pupils are streets ahead of the national average score of 78, clocking up a points average of 103, while Year One children exceeded the pilot study aims in phonics and their elder, Year Two companions secured a 3.6 level average, compared to the 2.5 average nationwide.
Coupled with a diverse curriculum, boasting additional out-of-hours sport and learning, Mrs Counter said her staff had shown a tremendous amount of courage during the past 12 months, while the pupils had been versatile to change.
"I think it's a bit like white water rafting, you're going down the river and there is no way out," she said.
"You just have to keep going, once you open you have to keep going and you have got to go through the rapids one by one as they come up.
"But every year group is achieving above the national average level and that's nice to see, because that's what I am hoping to continue to achieve; high academic standards."