What are Comprehensive and Foundation Schools?

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Comprehensive and foundation schools are amongst some of the most common education establishments in the UK. For years, they have offered equal opportunities for students to gain a quality, secondary education.  Most of you may have attended either a comprehensive or foundation school without realising it as they make up around 3000 of the total secondary schools in England.  

In short, comprehensive and foundation schools are schools which anybody can go to. The academic achievement of the child prior to entering has no bearing on their chances of admission. Instead, the chance of successful enrolment relies heavily on the geographical location of the student or their permanent address. Governing bodies control most aspects of a foundation school, while other aspects are overseen by the Local Authority. Parents are not obligated to pay school fees for either of these schools though other costs may not be accounted for (e.g., uniforms, stationery supplies). 

In this article, you will learn what exactly comprehensive and foundation schools are and what kind of education they offer to their students. 

What is a Comprehensive School?

Comprehensive schools are schools that do not have an enrolment process that relies on academic achievement 

They were first introduced after the Second World War and increased in popularity after a policy in 1965 which requested to schools a conversion to the comprehensive system. The first comprehensive school, called Colne Valley High School, was introduced in 1956 in the north of England. 

Due to the non-selective enrolment, comprehensives typically have more applicants and thus larger class sizes. Though the average class size has been on the rise in generalcomprehensive schools still tend to have more students per class in comparison to private schools, for example. Click here to find out more. 

The purpose of comprehensive schools is to get rid of the early selection processes and offer equal opportunities to all prospective students. This can be compared to the high school system in America and the UK is one of the few European nations to transition almost completely to a comprehensive structure. 

Larger comprehensive schools offer a wider range of subjects than purely academic institutions such as grammar schools. This means students who excel in arguably more creative subjects, such as art or music, are able to develop these skills. They can do develop these skills without feeling as if they are being penalised for not being as good at purely academic subjects.  

They are the most common type of state school in England and the only type of state school on offer in Wales. 

What is a Foundation School?

Foundation schools are state-funded schools in which the governing body has more control over the way it is run. They fall under the umbrella of maintained schools, meaning a school that is funded by a local education authority. Being a maintained school, foundation schools must conform to the national curriculum and national teacher wage 

What is the Role of the Governing Body in a Foundation School?

The governing body which controls the school may also own the physical land or building. It is also the responsibility of the governing body to employ staff and to set admissions criteria. A foundation school may set its own term dates, have a religious background, and have more control over what projects they spend their capital on 

According to this article by The Guardian, most foundation schools belong to the FASNA (Foundation and Aided Schools National Association) which has 919 members.  

The terms foundation school and trust schools are often used interchangeably. However, the article explains that the biggest difference between the two is that only the land and buildings of a foundation school are owned by the governing body,”.

The other assets of the school – apparatus, equipment, books in the library, pictures on the wall, cash in the bank – still appear to be owned by the LEA”. LEA stands for Local Education Authority.  

The governing body’s main goal is to hold the headteacher accountable for the performance of the school as well as manage the finances of the school. Anybody over the age of 18 can become a governor and there are few strict requirements. Though a typical member of the governing body will have a basic knowledge of the education system and some skills in finance.  

Governors and Teachers in a Foundation School 

According to the NGA (National Governors’ Association), a school must have a minimum of 7 governors, though this number may be higher in some foundation schools. At least two of these governors must be parents and one must be a staff member. A term in the role of governor lasts for 4 years and the NGA recommends that governors spend no more than 2 consecutive terms at one school. 

In terms of teachers, if a foundation school is of a religious background and has more than two teachers, they must have at least one teacher who is competent in the teaching of religious education. This teacher will be called a reserved teacher and the amount hired must not exceed one fifth of the total number of teachers. 

This rule is detailed in section 6.3 of Staffing and employment advice for schools, published by the Department for Education.  

What Are The Entry Requirements For Comprehensive and Foundation Schools?

The only real requirements for a comprehensive school are age and geographical location 

As you can tell, academic ability has no bearing on whether a student gets accepted. However, within the school, there may be different programs or paths of study that are best suited to the student 

For example, upon acceptance, a student is often put into a group with other students better known as sets. These sets contain students of similar academic aptitude, making it easier for teachers to cater to their needs as a group. 

These groups are usually decided beforehand using SATs results, exams done in the final year of primary school. In many schools, the sets are fluid as students continue to make progress and rise through the sets.  

As good as the intentions behind the lack of entry requirements are, there is some contention from critics, namely parents of children from disadvantaged areas. Due to the requirement of location, it means that comprehensive schools in wealthier places will only accept students of age in the surrounding area (i.e., children from wealthy families).  

It just so happens that often the comprehensive schools perceived as good are in places that are not as accessible to people with lower incomes 

Similarly, foundation schools also have few entry requirements. The student must simply live in the catchment area of the school 

The catchment area is the vicinity in which a child must reside in order to be eligible to attend the school. This must be the child’s permanent address for it to be considered in the catchment area of a school.  

You can find out your catchment area using this simple tool, here, which will find all the schools and nurseries available to you. 

What Are The Advantages of Comprehensive Schools?

Comprehensive schools have several advantages aside from having virtually no entry requirements. Their openness to students of any academic ability makes them more accessible to students with a wider range of skills and talents that perhaps are not academically based. Not being as gifted in mathematics or the sciences will not bar an otherwise talented child from the opportunity to learn and develop their skills in a classroom environment. 

Many critics of the grammar school’s selective system say the exams do not increase ambition. In fact, not only do they not increase ambition, but they increase stress and the destruction of a child’s self-esteem.

This article details the sheer amount of pressure young kids go through during the application for grammar schools and other selective schools. The disappointment felt after not making it in can be debilitating, especially on a young person who has been convinced that any other path is less-than.  

Comprehensive schools encourage social cohesion as students from different backgrounds are made to learn together. Though this is not an academic benefit, it is certainly a benefit for the child’s character as it will make them more tolerant and open minded in terms of interacting with people of different backgrounds. Being exposed to such a range of abilities can have a positive impact on the child’s world view. 

Another advantage of comprehensive schools is that the funding they receive in comparison to others means they typically have better facilities. According to the funding allocations for 2020-21 published on the government website, around £400 million was given to local authority-maintained schools. The high funding is due to the admission rate which means they can spend more on higher quality resources. 

What are the Disadvantages of Comprehensive Schools? 

Though the purpose of comprehensive schools in theory is to promote equality, the reality is the schools located in wealthy areas are of higher quality. This is because the parents of those students are more likely to send their children to university. As a result, the schools they go to will veer to a more academically oriented style of teaching to cater to the parent’s wants.   

It seems that the quality of a comprehensive school very heavily relies on the area in which it is in. Of course, for poorer students, this is puts them at a disadvantage, at which point you have to consider, perhaps a selective school is the better route. 

Another disadvantage to comprehensive schools (which also applies to foundation schools) is that the low entrance requirements may cultivate low ambition in the students. Getting into one of these schools is a relatively simple and easy process. Without the added pressure of a test like at grammar schools, it is often argued that the aspiration to achieve higher is lost. 

The Problems with High Admission Rates

The high admission rate can lead to lack of attention being shown to students as individual learners. In other words, with more students, a teacher is likely to be able to accommodate for all the different learning styles. This means some students may not receive the attention they need, may be held back or may be left behind by the rest of the class.  

Critics of comprehensive schools say this is the biggest disadvantage which is not experienced in grammar schools where the classes are smaller and contain students of more similar abilities.  

The Problem with Large Class Sizes

Furthermore, due to the inflated admission rates, it makes discipline more difficult for teachers. A larger class is more changeling to control than a smaller class.  

On top of this, it also makes it more difficult for teachers to get to know students both on an intellectual and personal level. Teaching should be tailored to the individual to foster the best environment for them to excel in. It becomes much harder to create this environment when one teacher is face with 30+ students. 

This also results in teachers having to teach to the middle. This concept is often employed when planning lessons that benefit the average student in the class as the average normally makes the majority. Although this may benefit most students, it neglects the needs of those who do not fall into the so-called middle.  

To maintain appropriate class sizes within sets, there is the danger that certain students may be placed in sets either below or above their level. For example, a high achieving student may be placed in a lower set than they should be, simply because there is no space for them in their intended set. This, of course, is a bad situation to be in as it leads to students feeling neglected and not being pushed to their highest potential. 

In this article, critiques of teaching to the middle are mentioned, including the detrimental effects of constantly trying to standardise teaching for an average that doesn’t exist. However, this is not so much a reflection on comprehensive schools as it is on the education system as a whole.  

What are the Advantages of Foundation Schools?

The biggest advantage of foundation schools is that they have more control over how they choose to run themselves. Without influence from third parties, they get to decide where they allocate their funds. This is typically a good thing for both students and teachers as they may receive better facilities and resources. 

Though the governing body oversees most aspects of the school, there are certain decisions they must inform the Local Authority of before making. For example, if the governing body decides they want to dispose of certain areas of land, they must ask the Local Authority before doing so.  

There is the possibility that the request may be denied if the authority feels it is not in the interest of the school itself. This may be considered a disadvantage as it then takes longer for schools to make choices.  

The minimum number of governors per foundation school is at least 7 and they all convene to make decisions as one. This means the likelihood of severe mistakes being made goes down greatly. Couple this with the fact that ats least two of the governors must be parents and the governing body begins to seem much less like an all-powerful group. The parents will of course have their children’s best interest at heart and want the school to succeed.  

Foundation schools are subject to Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education) inspections, meaning they are likely to uphold a certain level of quality. This is an advantage because the teaching styles and overall standard of the school will be put up to question and reviewed by professionals, ensuring the students receive the best possible education. You can search for the Ofsted reports of any school by name using the government website. 

What Are The Disadvantages of Foundation Schools?

Due to the power of the governing body over the teacher employment, they are free to hire whoever they see fit.  

This may seem like a good thing but can have disastrous consequences if not handled in a suitable manner. Since the Local Authority does not oversee this process as they do with land disposal, for example, the governing body has no-one to answer to but themselves when it comes to hiring.  

The fact that the only real requirement for getting on the governing body of school is to be over 18 may be cause for concern to some as they hold so much power over the goings-on at said school. They may have certain biases or agendas which can severely disrupt the school and the education of the students attending. 

The catchment area raises the same issues as the low entry requirements mentioned before in a previous section. These areas are not free of class division, meaning foundation schools located in wealthy areas are likely to carry a wealthy cohort of students. A lack of socioeconomic diversity can really take a toll on the mental state of a secondary school aged students.

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