Free school (England)
A free school is a school in England funded by taxpayers, which is free to attend, but which is not controlled by a local authority. Mainstream free schools are academically non-selective (following admissions law as it applies to maintained schools), while 16-19 free schools are able to select pupils based on GCSE grades or other criteria. The concept is based on similar schools found in Sweden, Chile, New Zealand (an overlap between designated special character schools and partnership schools), Canada, and the United States. In both the US and Canada they are known as charter schools.
Free schools were introduced by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition following the 2010 general election making it possible for parents, teachers, charities and businesses to set up their own schools. Free schools are an extension of the existing Academies Programme. The Academies Act 2010 authorises the creation of free schools and allows all existing state schools to become academy schools. The first 24 free schools opened in autumn 2011.
Free Schools are governed by non-profit charitable trusts that sign funding agreements with the Secretary of State. There are different model funding agreements for Single Academy Trusts and Multi Academy Trusts.
Free schools are subject to the School Admissions Code of Practice, with the exception that they are allowed to give priority to founders' children. To set up a free school, groups submit applications to the Department for Education. Groups include those run by parents, education charities and religious groups, although Education Secretary Michael Gove said he had ruled out religious fundamentalist groups being able to set up free schools. Ongoing funding is on an equivalent basis with other locally controlled state maintained schools, although additional start-up grants to establish the schools are also paid. Free schools are expected to offer a broad and balanced curriculum. They are still subject to Ofsted inspections and are expected to comply with standard performance measures.
Following the passing of the Education Act 2011, Local Authorities that need to create a new school must in most circumstances seek proposals for an Academy or Free School. They can only propose a traditional community school if no suitable free school or academy proposal is proposed.
In April 2014 it emerged in a leaked document 'Future Academy System: Lord Nash Session' that failing Free schools were being given special fast-track attention by the government to limit potential embarrassment to the Education Secretary Michael Gove. It stated "political ramifications of any more free schools being judged inadequate are very high and speedy intervention is essential".
Similar models in other countries
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Policy creation and implementation
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When the free school policy was first announced, some commentators expressed scepticism that the concept could be made to work at all, whereas others took the idea at face value and offered advice to potential proposers.
Supporters of free schools, such as the Conservative Party, claim that they will "create more local competition and drive-up standards". They also feel they will allow parents to have more choice in the type of education their child receives, much like parents who send their children to independent schools do.
Critics have argued that the policy will benefit only middle-class parents with the time to set up free schools and that they will divert money away from existing schools. Supporters of free schools say that they will benefit children from all backgrounds.
Some people are concerned that free schools are not obliged to cap their headteachers' pay.
In 2010 Paul Carter, a Conservative councillor, stated that under funding arrangements in place at the time, "the more academies and free schools you operate, under the current academy funding arrangements, the less [money] maintained schools would get." Since then the Department for Education has changed the funding arrangements for all maintained schools so that "schools in similar circumstances and with similar intakes receive similar levels of funding", whatever type of school they are.
In 2010, Peter Wilby, writing in The Guardian, predicted that free schools would be run by private companies rather than parents, teachers or voluntary groups. The New Schools Network was set up to help groups develop the skills needed to set up free schools. Analysis by the British Humanist Association in 2013 demonstrated that the majority of free school applications were from religious groups.
The Daily Telegraph describes the National Union of Teachers (NUT) warning that the policy would "fuel social segregation and undermine local democracy". The NUT also says that free schools are neither wanted nor needed based on a survey of a thousand parents. The Education Secretary has accused free school opponents of subjecting supporters to personal attacks and even death threats.
A 2010 paper by Rebecca Allen reviewed available research on the Swedish model that partially inspired the policy. It concluded, "The econometric evidence on the impact of the reforms suggests that, so far, Swedish pupils do not appear to be harmed by the competition from private schools, but the new schools have not yet transformed educational attainment in Sweden."
The Department for Education says that free schools have been popular with parents. Figures released in 2013 showed that 90% of free schools were over-subscribed with an average of three pupils competing for each place.
Critics pointed out that more than half of free schools opening in 2012 opened with 60% or less of the student numbers predicted by the impact assessment documents of each institution, leaving more than 10% spare places. As many of the 2012 free schools opened in temporary accommodation, it is not yet clear whether these opening subscription figures are indicative of the longer term popularity of the schools.
Free school 'waves'
Free schools approvals are processed and announced in batches, known as 'waves'.
Wave 1: In the autumn of 2010, Education Secretary Michael Gove announced that 16 proposals for free schools had been given a green light by the Government and were expected to open in September 2011.
Wave 2: In September 2012 the Department of Education announced 55 new free schools would open that month.
Wave 3: The DfE received 234 applications for the third wave of free schools, of which 102 were approved to progress to the pre-opening stage. The schools are due to open in September 2013.
Waves 5,6,7: In March 2013, the Department for Education announced the application schedule for groups wishing to open free schools in 2015 and beyond. The Wave 5 approvals were announced in January 2014, with 11 new schools being approved.
- University Technical College
- Academy (English school)
- Studio school
- State-funded schools (England)
- Education in Sweden
- List of schools in England
- New Schools Network
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- Free Schools at the website of the Department for Education
- Swedish model of 'free schools', BBC News, 20 November 2007