Talking heads West London Free School

Talking Heads: An interview with Rob Peal and Ben McLaughlin, joint heads of West London Free School

In the latest ‘Talking Heads’ interview, Horton and Garton spoke with Rob Peal and Ben McLaughlin, joint heads of West London Free School in Hammersmith.

It’s been more than 10 years since a bold new concept shook up the education scene in Hammersmith. 

West London Free School was the first of its kind; created in response to local demand, but centrally funded with the enthusiastic backing of the then education secretary Michael Gove. 

It was opened in September 2011 by Boris Johnson (then the Mayor of London) and – after initially being split across different sites – settled into the former Palingswick House in King Street. 

Are two heads better than one?

It briefly became the most oversubscribed state school in the land, although the head teacher’s study appeared to have a revolving door. Five different heads came and went until, in April last year, joint heads were appointed. 

Rob Peal and Ben McLaughlin share an office and share leadership of the secondary school. It’s an unusual arrangement, but both feel it works well. 

“Rob and I actually joined the school at the same time in 2014,” said Ben, who commutes in from Putney. Rob, who lives in Brackenbury village, leads on academic, curricular and outcomes, with Ben in charge of pastoral, behavioural and safeguarding. 

It’s how their duties were split when they were deputy heads at the school. “We’ve kept that division,” said Ben, as Rob quickly added: “Neither of us feels like the other’s understudy!” 

Ben began his WLFS career as Head of English (he studied English Lit at university), with Rob joining as Head of History (having briefly worked for a think tank in Westminster). Both had done their teacher training in Birmingham. 

As the pair had been together on the leadership team for four years before being elevated to the joint headship, it now has a stable, established feel at the top. 

West London Free School Classroom

Primary, secondary and sixth form 

The school is unusual in west London in having linked primary and secondary sections following the addition of an early-years school in 2013. The sixth form opened in 2016. 

Ofsted is upbeat about WLFS, rating it as Good overall, and singling out music as a particular strength… marking it out among state schools. The school is mixed and has nearly 900 students, with just over a quarter qualifying for free school meals. 

“The school now feels almost indistinguishable from a school that isn’t a free school,” said Rob. The difference is that fewer subjects are taught but in greater depth. “That makes us stand out, and we have a slightly longer school day.” 

Ben added: “Now it isn’t so much the free school idea [that parents want], it’s the quality of the education.” 

Is it Britain’s strictest state school?

The Daily Mail once dubbed WLFS ‘the strictest state school in Britain’. “No, we’re not the strictest state school in Britain,” insisted Ben. “Setting aside the sensational headline, the school felt very new, very frontier-ish. We have very high expectations, and that’s something to be proud of. ‘Strict’ is a loaded term… we just want everyone to do well.” 

He firmly believes that having focused, calm classrooms improves everyone’s chance to learn. “Noisy, boisterous classrooms are actually quite overwhelming.” 

As a concept, the free school movement aims to give families and communities the opportunity to open a school in an area where they feel there is a need. “We were very proud to be one of the first,” said Ben. 

West London Free School Hammersmith students

Celebrating school founders

WLFS has an annual Founders’ Day to celebrate the school’s core values and commemorate the efforts of the pioneers who had the ‘start-up mentality’ to overcome the challenges of setting up a school from scratch. 

Looking ahead, both Ben and Rob aim to establish an ethos in which the school is as sustainable, successful and steady as possible, with its musical strengths being shared with the wider west London community via choir recitals and concerts. 

Looking to move to West London?

Finding the right school is often a guiding factor in choosing an area to live.

There are several desirable places to live within a short distance of the West London Free School such as the sought after Brackenbury Village.

If you’re looking at Hammersmith, Chiswick or Shepherds Bush, and want to know about property choices, Horton and Garton are happy to share their knowledge. Get in touch.