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Education / 7 January, 2014

Benjamin Southworth: the man with a plan for tech-friendly free school

Former adviser to David Cameron bids to launch Ada Lovelace Academy

Benjamin Southworth

Free school dreams: technology entrepreneur Benjamin Southworth

A former adviser to the government’s Tech City initiative is finalising an application to open a new free school for 16-19 year olds.

Benjamin Southworth, a 32-year old entrepreneur, was selected to advise David Cameron as deputy chief executive of the Tech City Investment Organisation. His 12-month contract came to an end in June.

Since then he has put together plans for the proposed school, and an application is set to be submitted to the Department for Education in May.

Southworth is a board member for micro-investment organisation The Awesome Foundation and has established himself as a networker extraordinaire, initiating events like the Silicon Drinkabout which, as its name suggests, is a weekly piss-up attended by hundreds of industry folk across several cities.

So not a traditional education background, then.

Quite the contrary, in fact.

Southworth’s take on education stems from his disenchantment with the system he grew up with. Having failed his A-levels, instead of attending university, he convinced a Cambridge tech company to take him on.

The problem with the education system? “We’re teaching them how to write essays about Shakespeare, but we’re not teaching them how to build a website about Shakespeare.”

Provisionally called Ada Lovelace Academy (named after the daughter of Lord Byron, who is known as the world’s first computer programmer), the school will aim to take on just thirty pupils per year under a curriculum geared heavily towards digital technology.

Southworth, who describes himself in his CV as an “evangelist for digital technology,” likes to “preach, celebrate and shout about” how digital business can transform the world.

If his school gets the go-ahead he will join the ranks of many entrepreneurial voices who have inserted themselves into the education debate since Michael Gove’s free schools programme was launched in 2011.

In October a debate titled ‘The Future of London Schools’ featured the founder of payday loan site wonga.com, who expressed frustration at his inability to find qualified applicants to fill hundreds of job vacancies at his company.

Brett Wigdortz, the entrepreneur founder of TeachFirst, also sat on the panel. While Southworth says he will leave the teaching “to the experts”, he plans to carry on doing what he does best – creating links between the school and viable employers.

Next month Southworth will begin a public consultation process to establish local demand for the school, which will have no set catchment area but has been vetted for Hackney.

Southworth, who has lived in the borough for one year, is working with the council to find a suitable local building.

The school is aiming to find a base in the heart of Tech City, where STEM Academy, another free school focusing on science, technology, engineering and maths, opened last year.

The proposed school will use the Harkness model of education, a roundtable-style learning system used at elite private schools.

If students come through the school into a job at a company, commercial partners will be asked to donate to the school the equivalent of the cost of recruitment of that employee.

This type of industry-centric approach has taken a front-row seat in the education debate, with entrepreneurs seeing opportunity in policy – in this case, feeding the needs of an industry hungry for “access to talent.”

/ 7 January, 2014
  • HackneyShire

    This is surely everything that is wrong with free schools here on one page. An “entrepreneur” (I use the term loosely) who has never run a company of any note (a couple of start-ups, one has a dissolution notice) and seems to have no understanding of education but has a lot of Twitter followers wants to start a school? Seriously?

    Give the money to state schools who will spend it in a far better fashion than any free school.

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