AS David Cameron pledges to open another 500 free schools across the country if he is elected Prime Minister, the Echo takes a closer look at the free school on our own doorstep. KATIE MANSFIELD reports.

SMALL classes, tailored to a child’s needs is what every parent wants.

It’s what Southend YMCA’s Free School is proud of.

The school, which has 36 pupils aged between 14 and 16, opened its doors to teenagers in East Street in September 2013 and offers help to those youngsters who cannot attend mainstream school, for various reasons.

As with other free schools, the Southend YMCA Free School is a non-profit making, independent, state-funded school.

Head, Annette Turner, said: “There are different kinds of free school – mainstream, special educational needs and alternative.

We are an alternative free school.

“Our students are referred to us through our commissioning schools, other mainstream schools and the local authority.

“Our students are here for a whole range of reasons. For one reason or another they may be unable to attend mainstream school, that can be through illness, if they are on the cusp of exclusion or in need of additional support.

“For a number of our young people, they struggle with mainstream because they need additional support, they mainly have behavioural difficulties and we have a high percentage of pupils on free school meals.”

The school prides itself on its academic and pastoral curriculum with social workers and clinical psychologists on its staff.

Students are on track to sit five GCSEs each in English language, English literature, maths, computer studies and media studies.

Small classes of ten to 13 students are run by teachers supported by learning support assistants and a learning mentor who is a qualified counsellor.

The school works closely with other schools in the borough and Southend Council.

“We were not set up by a group of parents, but by the YMCA and we have been involved in education for a number of years and we are all qualified teachers,” said Mrs Turner.

“In Southend we have had full capacity in our second year, which would suggest Southend needed it.

“With this provision, we are meeting the demand and I think it’s a fabulous opportunity for young people to get an appropriate service for their needs.

“We have the right support in place for our young people. We are passionate about improving the lives of young people.”

The school is accountable to a board of governors and subject to Ofsted inspections and is accountable to the Department for Education through its funding agreement.

Backed by the YMCA, the charity has been providing education and training for children aged 14 to 16 at its centre in Ambleside Drive for more than five years and for those aged 16 to 19 for more than ten years.

It’s expected the number of pupils at the free school will rise to 50 over the next few years.

Syrie Cox, chief executive of Southend YMCA, said: “As a charity, we are always trying to meet the needs and aspirations of young people. That is a seed we are trying to grow.

“The charity exists to serve our beneficiaries and with the school there was an opportunity there and we are working on behalf of young people.”

What is a free school?

The Department for Education says: “Free schools are nonprofit- making, independent, state-funded schools.

“They are set up in response to what local people say they want and need in order to improve education for children in their community.

“Groups running free schools cannot make a profit and the schools are subject to the same Ofsted inspections as all maintained schools.

“The admissions arrangements of all free schools must be fair and transparent. Free schools are expected to be open to pupils of all abilities from the area and cannot be academically selective.”

Other free schools in Essex: Becket Keys School in Brentwood: Opened in September 2012, and is already heavily oversubscribed. Ofsted says the school is “outstanding”

Grove House School in Brentwood: Will open its doors this September to pupils aged 9-19. The school will offer intensive support to pupils with a speech, language and communication impairment.

The Ongar Academy: Due to open in September 2015 in a brand new state-of-the-art building in Fyfield Road, Ongar.