Sarah Counter, CEO, founder and director of Canary Wharf College Trust, is transforming education in East London by opening not one but three free schools on the Isle of Dogs.

Before you ever meet her, they tell you that Sarah Counter is scary. And these are the parents speaking.

Sarah Counter
\"Sarah Counter still fights the Department for Education for what she needs\" Sarah Counter

Counter already runs two primary free schools on the Isle of Dogs. The first, opened in 2011, is deemed outstanding by Ofsted and is four or five times over-subscribed: our oldest daughter is one of its pupils. The second is open but has yet to be rated. The third is in the pipeline and will be a through school for students aged four to 18 years.

With a background in independent education, Counter has established her methods. Each class has 20 children. The school operates from 8.40am sharp until 4pm every day, with options on after school clubs until 5pm. Every classroom has a viewing panel so it can be seen from the corridor.

The uniform and lunch policies are detailed and prescriptive. There is a focus on literacy and numeracy: children learn Mandarin from the age of four.

Cutting out the red tape

Counter explains that she is motivated by educational need. She has worked in Africa, improving education, but when visiting her daughter in Stepney Green, saw kids streaming out of school and realised her talents were needed in east London. But her preference for free schools is controversial and people ask why she couldn't have done it within the local authority structure.

Because, she says, local authority control stifles creativity. "They organise your insurance, your catering, your building and everything is so slow because you have put in bids and get them accepted meanwhile water is pouring through the roof. The bureaucracy stifles creativity and limits opportunity to the children."

As a former education consultant on the Labour City Academies programme she also believes that, had Michael Gove branded the free schools 'New Academies', they would have been less controversial.

Either way, she is motivated to prove that you can, on the same budget, provide outstanding education. And she is doing it.

Her detractors question the three-school strategy, accusing her of being greedy. She explains that she originally sought to have one through school (four-18) but she didn't get approval for enough space. She applied for another through school but, again, they only wanted a primary. So she went back for the third time.

Her vision is that the three primaries feed into the one secondary and allow pupils from other local schools to join. She says she has to do it this way because there is a need for 1,000 extra secondary school places in east London by 2017. She cannot see anyone else stepping up to the plate and cannot consider letting her current year five pupils drift into poor schools.

Sarah Counter
\"The path to opening the first free school was very, very stressful\" Sarah Counter

Fighting for the cause

She reminds me of a head from my own childhood: her polite but crisp, no-nonsense style almost seems of another era. Her key words are tenacity, resilience and faith, things she says she partly learnt in boarding school.

She jokes that when she recently bumped into Lord Nash he asked her "Now what have I done wrong?" It is not unlike an anecdote she tells about the viewing panels in classrooms: "I see one of the children doing something they shouldn't and I creep in and I say quietly 'What are you doing dear?'"

She says that the path to opening the first free school was "very, very stressful" because the Department for Education was feeling its way along with the applicants. She still fights the department for what she needs.

When they questioned the cost of internal viewing panels recently she said, "You say bad behaviour is a problem. I am saying I can get outstanding behaviour but part of that is having viewing panels." She got her windows.

Counter has also been criticised for being selective - 50% of the children are Christian in a multi-ethnic area – and for having a lower than average number of kids eligible for the Pupil Premium, additional funding given to schools to raise the attainment of disadvantaged pupils. She dismisses both. Every branch of Christianity is welcome and this stipulation is, she says, essential to support the Christian ethos of the school.

The Pupil Premium shortfall is partly as a result of the first school being on the side of the Isle of Dogs least bombed during the war so there are more dockers houses left. Also because most of the children who attend are the firstborn so many parents are unaware of the advantages of the premium.

Last year a Spanish teacher we know visited the school for a day to see what it was like. She emerged effusive: ordered, calm, very focused kids, great teachers and everyone hard at work. One of the mothers laughed and said "Yes, but was Mrs Counter scary?"

"Mrs Counter played the piano and sang with the children and told jokes and they had a wonderful time."

So it's just the parents and Lord Nash then. Quite right too.

Christine Armstrong is a contributing editor of Management Today, author of Power Mums (interviews with high-profile mothers) and founder of

She can be found on Twitter at @hannisarmstrong