State-funded schools (England)

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Wetherby High School, a typical state-funded secondary school in 2019

English state-funded schools provide education to pupils between the ages of 3 and 18 without charge. Approximately 93% of English schoolchildren attend 20,000 or so such schools. Since 2008 about 75% have attained "academy status", which essentially gives them a higher budget per pupil from the Department for Education.[1]

There are a number of categories of English state-funded schools including academy schools, community schools, faith schools, foundation schools, free schools, 'studio schools', University technical colleges, and a small number of state boarding schools and City Technology Colleges. In 2011, about 7,000 (one third) of English state-funded schools were faith schools;[2] ie. affiliated with religious groups, most often from the Church of England (approximately 2/3 of faith schools), or the Roman Catholic Church (just under a third). There were 42 Jewish, 12 Muslim, 3 Sikh and 1 Hindu faith schools. These faith schools include sub-categories such as faith-academy schools, voluntary aided schools, and voluntary controlled schools: most voluntary controlled schools are faith schools.

All of these are funded through national and local taxation. A number of state-funded secondary schools are specialist schools, receiving extra funding to develop one or more subjects in which the school specialises, such as Cirencester Deer Park School which currently has 5 specialisms. State schools may request payment from parents for extracurricular activities such as swimming lessons and field trips, provided these charges are voluntary.


Until 1870 all schools were charitable or private institutions, but in that year the Elementary Education Act 1870 permitted local governments to complement the existing elementary schools, to fill up any gaps. The Education Act 1902 allowed local authorities to create secondary schools. The Education Act 1918 abolished fees for elementary schools.

This table gives a simplified overview of how the compulsory provision of education by the state (yellow) and compulsory education (purple) developed since 1870, and also how the types of schools used for this purpose evolved. Use some caution with this table which gives a simplified view based on changing policies and legislation, the reality on the ground changed more slowly and is more complex.

Age 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 Notes
1870 Elementary school Schools must be provided by local authorities
1880 Elementary school Compulsory education from ages of 5 to 10
1893 Elementary school Compulsory education raised to 11
1899 Elementary school Compulsory education raised to 13
1900 Elementary school Higher elementary school Distinct higher elementary schools created
1902 Primary school
Infant school Junior school
Secondary school Local education authorities created, and new Primary schools
1921 Primary school Secondary school, Central school Responsibility for secondary schools passed to the state
1947 Primary school Secondary modern, grammar school, Secondary Technical School Tripartite System and Eleven-Plus exam
1960s First school Middle school Upper school, grammar school Strong move towards comprehensive schools
1973 Primary school Comprehensive school, grammar school Phasing out of middle schools
2014 Primary school, Academy school, Free school Comprehensive school, Academy school, Free school School leaving age increased to 17. Some three-tier areas still exist

Types of state school[edit]

Allerton High School, a former comprehensive school in Leeds, West Yorkshire.

Since 1998, there have been six main types of maintained school in England:[3][4][5]

  • Academy schools, established by the 1997–2010 Labour Government to replace poorly performing community schools in areas of high social and economic deprivation. Their start-up costs are typically funded by private means, such as entrepreneurs or NGOs, with running costs met by Central Government and, like Foundation schools, are administratively free from direct local authority control. The 2010 Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government expanded the role of Academies in the Academy Programme, in which a wide number of schools in non-deprived areas were also encouraged to become Academies, thereby essentially replacing the role of Foundation schools established by the previous Labour government. They are monitored directly by the Department for Education.[6]
  • Free schools, introduced by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition following the 2010 general election, are newly established schools in England set up by parents, teachers, charities or businesses, where there is a perceived local need for more schools. They are funded by taxpayers, are academically non-selective and free to attend, and like Foundation schools and Academies, are not controlled by a local authority. They are ultimately accountable to the Secretary of State for Education, and are conceptually based on similar schools found in Sweden, Chile, New Zealand, Canada and the United States, where they are known as Charter schools. Free schools are an extension of the existing Academy Programme, and are in fact legally identical to Academies with the term "Free School" being used for Academies that are newly established under the Governments Free School Initiative rather than being an existing school converted to Academy status. The Academies Act 2010 authorises the creation of free schools and allows all existing state schools to become Academy schools. Persons or groups seeking to set up a Free School may obtain assistance from the government supported New Schools Network. This last should not be confused with the Local Schools Network which is a group set up to oppose both Free Schools, and indeed the whole Academy program. The first 24 free schools opened in Autumn 2011.
  • Community schools (formerly county schools), in which the local authority employs the schools' staff, owns the schools' lands and buildings, and has primary responsibility for admissions.
  • Foundation schools, in which the governing body employs the staff and has primary responsibility for admissions. School land and buildings are owned by the governing body or by a charitable foundation. The Foundation appoints a minority of governors. Many of these schools were formerly grant maintained schools. In 2005 the Labour government proposed allowing all schools to become Foundation schools if they wished.
  • voluntary aided schools, linked to a variety of organisations. They can be faith schools (about two thirds are Church of England-affiliated; Roman Catholic Church, which are just under one third; or another faith), or non-denominational schools, such as those linked to London Livery Companies. The charitable foundation contributes towards the capital costs of the school, and appoints a majority of the school governors. The governing body employs the staff and has primary responsibility for admissions.[7]
  • voluntary controlled schools, which are almost always faith schools, with the lands and buildings often owned by a charitable foundation. However, the local authority employs the schools' staff and has primary responsibility for admissions.

In addition, 3 of the 15 City Technology Colleges established in the 1980s still remain, the rest having converted to academies. These are state-funded all-ability secondary schools which charge no fees but which are independent of local authority control.

There is also a small number of state-funded boarding schools, such as Gordons, which typically charge for board but not tuition. Boarding fees are limited to £12,000 per annum.[8]

School years[edit]

Children are normally placed in year groups determined by the age they will attain at their birthday during the school year.[9] In most cases progression from one year group to another is based purely on chronological age, although it is possible in some circumstances for a student to repeat or skip a year. Repetition may be due to a lack of attendance, for example from a long illness, and especially in Years requiring standard tests. A child significantly more advanced than their classmates may be forwarded one or more years.

State-funded nursery education is available from the age of 3, and may be full-time or part-time, though this is not compulsory. If registered with a state school, attendance is compulsory beginning with the term following the child's fifth birthday. Children can be enrolled in the reception year in September of that school year, thus beginning school at age 4 or 4.5. Unless the student chooses to stay within the education system, compulsory school attendance ends on the last Friday in June during the academic year in which a student attains the age of 16.[10]

In the vast majority of cases, pupils progress from primary to secondary levels at age 11; in some areas either or both of the primary and secondary levels are further subdivided. A few areas have three-tier education systems with an intermediate middle level from age 9 to 13.

Years 12 and 13 are often referred to as "lower sixth form" and "upper sixth form" respectively, reflecting their distinct, voluntary nature as the A-level years. While most secondary schools enter their pupils for A-levels, some state schools have joined the independent sector in offering the International Baccalaureate or Cambridge Pre-U qualifications instead.

Some independent schools still refer to Years 7 to 11 as "first form" to "fifth form", reflecting earlier usage. Historically, this arose from the system in public schools, where all forms were divided into Lower, Upper, and sometimes Middle sections. Year 7 is equivalent to "Upper Third Form", Year 8 would have been known as "Lower Fourth", and so on. Some independent schools still employ this method of labelling Year groups.

The table below describes the most common patterns for schooling in the state sector in England.

Age at birthday during school year[9] Year Curriculum Stage State Schools
4 Nursery Foundation Stage Nursery School
5 Reception Infant School Primary School First School
6 Year 1 Key Stage 1
7 Year 2
8 Year 3 Key Stage 2 Junior School
9 Year 4
10 Year 5 Middle School
11 Year 6
12 Year 7 Key Stage 3 Secondary School or
High School
Secondary School
with Sixth Form
13 Year 8
14 Year 9 Upper School
15 Year 10 Key Stage 4


16 Year 11
17 Year 12 (Lower Sixth) Key Stage 5 / Sixth Form

A-level, BTEC, International Baccalaureate, Cambridge Pre-U, etc.

Sixth Form/FE College
18 Year 13 (Upper Sixth)


All maintained schools in England are required to follow the National Curriculum, which is made up of twelve subjects.[11]

Under the National Curriculum, all pupils undergo National Curriculum Tests (NCTs, commonly still referred to by their previous name of Standard Attainment Tests, or SATs) towards the ends of Key Stage 2 in the core subjects of Literacy, Numeracy and Science, but not in the foundation subjects such as Geography, History and Information & Communication Technology where individual teacher assessment is used instead. Pupils normally take GCSE exams in the last two years of Key Stage 4, but may also choose to work towards the attainment of alternative qualifications, such as the GNVQ. Former tests at the end of Key Stage 3 were abandoned after the 2008 tests, where severe problems emerged concerning the marking procedures. Now at the end of Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 3, progress is examined via individual teacher assessment against the National Curriculum Attainment Targets for all subjects.

The core subjects—English, Mathematics and Science—are compulsory for all students aged 5 to 16. A range of other subjects, known as foundation subjects, are compulsory at one or more Key Stages:

In addition, other subjects with a non-statutory programme of study in the National Curriculum are also taught, including Religious education in all Key Stages, Sex education from Key Stage 2, and Career education and Work-related learning in Key Stages 3 and 4.[11] Religious education within community schools may be withdrawn for individual pupils with parental consent. Similarly, parents of children in community schools may choose to opt their child out of some or all sex education lessons.


There is concern that some types of discipline are harsh and can harm pupils. Prolonged periods of isolation are criticised as are excessive suspensions. There is concern that schools, especially academies are choosing punishments that cost less to administer.[12]


All state-funded schools are regularly inspected by the Office for Standards in Education, often known simply as Ofsted. Ofsted publish reports on the quality of education at a particular school on a regular basis. Schools judged by Ofsted to be providing an inadequate standard of education may be subject to special measures, which could include replacing the governing body and senior staff.

Test results for schools are published, and are an important measure of their performance.[13][14]

Selection and attainment[edit]

English secondary schools are mostly comprehensive, except in a few areas that retain a form of the previous selective system (the Tripartite System), with students selected for grammar school by the Eleven-Plus exam. There are also a number of isolated fully selective grammar schools, and a few dozen partially selective schools. Specialist schools may also select up to 10% of their intake for aptitude in their specialism, though relatively few of them have taken up this option. They are not permitted to select on academic ability generally. The intake of comprehensive schools can vary widely, especially in urban areas with several local schools.[15]

Sir Peter Newsam, Chief Schools Adjudicator 1999–2002, has argued that English schools can be divided into 8 types (with some overlap), based on the ability range of their intake:[16][17]

  1. "Super-Selective": almost all of the intake from the top 10%. These are the few highly selective state grammar schools where there is no other grammar provision close by and consequently intense competition for entry, and which also select from a wide radius (sometimes as much as 30 miles). Examples include Reading Grammar School, and such schools dominate school performance tables.
  2. "Selective": almost all of the intake from the top 25%. These include grammar schools in areas where the Tripartite system survives, such as Buckinghamshire, Kent and Lincolnshire.
  3. "Comprehensive (plus)": admit children of all abilities, but concentrated in the top 50%. These include partially selective schools and a few high-status faith schools in areas without selection, and are usually in areas with expensive property prices that lead to a predominance of pupils from the higher social classes.
  4. "Comprehensive": intake with an ability distribution matching the local population. These schools are most common in rural areas and small towns with no nearby selection, but a few occur in urban areas.
  5. "Comprehensive (minus)": admit children of all abilities, but with few in the top 25%. These include comprehensive schools with nearby selective schools "skimming" the intake.
  6. Secondary Modern: hardly any of the intake in the top 25%, but an even distribution of the rest. These include non-selective schools in areas where the Tripartite system survives, such as Buckinghamshire, Kent and Lincolnshire. Such schools are little different to "comprehensive minus" in practice.
  7. "Comprehensive (Secondary Modern (minus)": no pupils in the top 25% and 10–15% in the next 25%. These schools are most common in urban areas where alternatives of types 1–5 are available.
  8. "Comprehensive (Sub-Secondary Modern)": intake heavily weighted toward the low end of the ability range and tend to be in areas of considerable social deprivation.

This ranking is reflected in performance tables, and thus the schools' attractiveness to parents. Thus, although schools may use the phrase 'Comprehensive' in their prospectus or name, the schools at the higher end of the spectrum are not comprehensive in intake. Indeed, the variation in the social groupings in school intake, and the differences in academic performance, are enormous, and there are wider variations between supposedly mixed-ability comprehensive schools at the higher and lower end of this scale, than between some grammars and secondary moderns.

Permanent and temporary exclusions of pupils from schools in England are rising. Pupil support services, which can prevent bad behaviour escalating till exclusion becomes necessary have been cut due to underfunding. Also council support to vulnerable families has been cut leading to problems in schools. Geoff Barton of the Association of School and College Leaders said cuts in support for schools and council services forced schools to use exclusions. Barton said, “We are extremely concerned that this increase in exclusions is a result of the school funding crisis and cuts to local children’s services. Schools have had to cut back on the individual support they are able to give students, making it more difficult to provide early intervention and prevent behavioural problems from escalating. At the same time council support services for vulnerable families have been cut back meaning that schools are having to pick up the pieces.” Children with special education needs (SEND) are disproportionately often excluded.[18] Pupils are sometimes excluded for trivial reasons like not having socks coming up to their knees. Gangs can easily target excluded pupils and encourage them to commit crimes like drug running. Exclued pupils frequently get only about two hours education a day so they have time to commit crimes like knife crime. One excluded pupil said, "Since they kicked me out, I've got time on my hands to... commit more crime in Croydon with my friends who have also been kicked out, who are also doing wrong things, who are also selling drugs who are also carrying knives." Only a third of councils have space in their pupil referral units to give excluded pupils full time education. There were 7900 permanent exclusions from schools in England in 2017-18, 70% higher than in 2012.[19]

The proportion of pupils leaving school without basic qualifications is rising because schools are concentrating resources on high attainers. The poorest children and children with special education needs are losing out. Since 2015 there has been a 28% increase and about 100,000 pupils a year leave school with less than 5 good GCSE passes or equivalent, that is nearly one in five. Anne Longfield said, "As so often is the case, children who are on free school meals - the poorest children - and children with special educational needs fare the worse in the situation." 98,779 (18%) of pupils in England in 2018 did not get five GCSEs at grade C or higher or equivalent technical qualifications. Roughly 28,225 (37%) of pupils qualifying for free school meals did not get those passes.[20]

Fire safety[edit]

67% of English schools have “poor” fire protection while 5% are “excellent”. In England, sprinklers are not legally required in all schools and fewer than one sixth of new schools have sprinklers included. There are over 1,000 fires in schools annually, which cost an average of £2.8m for major fires and close schools for pupils and also for the larger community that frequently uses the buildings outside school time. Andy Dark of the Fire Brigades Union said, “We’ve made it clear in the past that newly built schools and other high-risk buildings should have sprinkler systems and we fully support Zurich Municipal’s call on the government to change the law to make them mandatory. Ideally, sprinklers would be fitted in all schools of whatever age and size. Sprinklers can assist in limiting the spread of fire, the damage it will cause and giving occupants additional time to escape, as well as reducing the risks faced by firefighters attending the incident.”[21]


Almost all state-funded schools in England are maintained schools, which receive their funding from local authorities, and are required to follow the National Curriculum. In such schools, all teachers are employed under the nationally agreed School Teachers' Pay and Conditions Document. Debt among local-authority-run secondary schools is increasing. In 2016-2017 there were 26.1% of secondary schools in deficit. Lack of government funding is blamed.[22] Independent accountants also concluded that 8 out of 10 academies are in deficit if depreciation is taken into account.[23] Schools in very deprived areas will be subject to greater budget pressures and cuts in 2020. Real-terms cuts to schools with the poorest pupils would be over three times greter than cuts in schools for the richest areas. 90% of secondary schools with the largest proportion of pupils getting free school meals will be worse off. On average real-terms spending cuts for poorer pupils will be £509 per pupil contrasted with 2015-16, though the majority of schools for the least deprived will be on sverage £117 worse funded than five years before 2019. Roughly 40% of primary schools with largest numbers of pupils qualifying for free school meals will suffer more cuts, on average £300 to £380 less per pupil than in 2015-16. Angela Rayner said, “Schools in more affluent, Conservative areas and those attending selective grammar schools are set to benefit, while pupils and schools in disadvantaged areas will continue to lose out, entrenching, not tackling, inequality.”[24]

Almost all local authorities have cut back on financial help for low income families to pay for school uniforms, local authorities have less money due to austerity. Some children are going to school with badly fitting clothes or with the wrong clothes because their families cannot afford the proper uniform. Some children are missing lessons because they have not got the correct uniform. Families are getting into debt to pay for school uniforms. Lisa Forbes MP said, “These latest figures show that families are being squeezed between rising costs and the lack of support to help with them, and both lie directly at this government’s door. I have urged ministers to keep their promise to regulate uniform costs, but for four years they have dragged their feet.”[25]

The Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) discovered thousands of children and young people with impaired vision are not getting their needs met due to lack of funds for specialist education. The RNIB calculated that cuts affect roughly 11,000 children and young people out of roughly 30,000 with visual impairment. 44% of Councils in England have cut or frozen support for visually impaired pupils, 43% have reduced specialist staff, increasing workload for those who remain and 24% are planning additional reviews that could lead to more cuts. 28% of local authorities reported that specialist teachers had case loads of over a hundred amd in some authorities students over 16 do not get support they should get. The RNIB maintains there has been a 7% increase in the number of visuaklly impaired pupils needing specialist support. The RNIB report says, “Having the right support in place can remove the barriers to learning and enable them to develop the specialist skills they need to succeed, not just at school but as adults with full lives,. However, whilst this research has identified pockets of good practice, overall the findings show a system of specialist provision under significant pressure.” SEND education (education for pupils with special needs and disabilities) is in crisis and lack of support for visually impaired pupils is just part of it.[26]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ "SCHOOLS, PUPILS, AND THEIR CHARACTERISTICS". Department for Education. 16 July 2015.
  2. ^ BBC News 3 Dec 2011 Catholic faith schools in academy switch
  3. ^ "Categories of Schools – Overview". GovernorNet. Department for Children, Schools and Families. 5 September 2003. Archived from the original on 13 January 2009. Retrieved 10 December 2008.
  4. ^ "The Composition of Schools in England" (PDF). Department for Children, Schools and Families. June 2008. Archived from the original (PDF) on 24 February 2009.
  5. ^ Types of School, Citizens Advice Bureau.
  6. ^ "What are Academies?". Standards Site. Department for Children, Schools and Families. Archived from the original on 7 December 2008. Retrieved 10 December 2008.
  7. ^ "Voluntary Aided Schools". Teachernet. Department for Children, Schools and Families. 8 January 2008. Archived from the original on 10 February 2009.
  8. ^ Jeevan Vasagar (31 January 2012). "State boarding school boom: surge in pupils living away from home". Guardian.
  9. ^ a b Education Act 2002, s.82.
  10. ^ "School attendance and absence: the law". Directgov.
  11. ^ a b "National curriculum". Teachernet. Department for Children, Schools and Families. 2007. Archived from the original on 23 February 2008. Retrieved 19 February 2008.
  12. ^ Use of isolation booths in schools criticised as 'barbaric' punishment The Guardian
  13. ^ "National Curriculum teacher assessments and key stage tests". DirectGov website. H M Government. 2008. Retrieved 18 February 2008.
  14. ^ "School and college achievement and attainment tables". DCSF website. Department for Children, Schools and Families. 2008. Retrieved 18 February 2008.
  15. ^ Clyde Chitty (16 November 2002). "The Right to a Comprehensive Education". Second Caroline Benn Memorial Lecture. Retrieved 22 January 2009. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  16. ^ Peter Newsam (2003). "Diversity and Admissions to English Secondary Schools", Secondary Heads Association, 28 June 2002, revised and reprinted in 'Forum 45:1'". pp. 17–18.
  17. ^ Tim Brighouse (2003). "Comprehensive Schools Then, Now and in the Future: is it time to draw a line in the sand and create a new ideal?". Forum. pp. 3–11.
  18. ^ Sharp rise in pupil exclusions from English state schools The Guardian
  19. ^ Overhaul exclusions to beat knife crime, say MPs BBC
  20. ^ GCSEs: 100,000 pupils a year leaving 'without basic qualifications' BBC
  21. ^ Two-thirds of English schools found to have 'poor' fire protections The Guardian
  22. ^ Proportion of English secondary schools in deficit almost trebles The Guardian
  23. ^ Eight out of 10 academies in deficit, say accountants BBC
  24. ^ Schools in deprived areas face further cuts next year, unions say The Guardian
  25. ^ Families in England hit by 70% cut in school uniform grant The Observer
  26. ^ Funding cuts take toll on support for visually impaired pupils The Guardian