When choosing a school for your child, the many different types can be confusing. Many parents find that the stress of choosing a school is due to a lack of information and understanding of different types. One of the most confusing school options to understand can be free schools, as the name can seem confusing. Some parents do not know where to find unbiased information about free schools. In this article, we will help you to understand the free school system, and the benefits and drawbacks of attending a school of this type.
A free school is a non-selective school which receives government funding but is run by a community group such as a charity, parents, teachers, or faith organisation. They often combine secondary and primary education and get more freedom over things like school term dates and timings of the day. Often these schools have a specialism such as art, drama, maths, or science. They are not required to teach the national curriculum, so can choose which subjects to teach within reason.
While this may have answered some of your basic questions about free schools in the UK, please read on for more information about the system, and how it can work best for you and your child.
What is a Free School?
Free schools are government-funded schools, however instead of being run by the local authority they can be run by organisations including charities, universities, faith groups, teachers, parents and businesses. They are often “all through” schools, meaning they combine secondary and primary education so your child can attend the same school from reception to the sixth form if wanted.
Their freedom from local authority governance means free schools are allowed to set their own pay and conditions for staff. There is no requirement for teaching staff employed by free schools to have qualified teacher status. This means they could technically employ untrained and unqualified candidates; however, this is very unlikely. They can also choose to pay staff more or less than their state school colleagues.
Free schools are also allowed to change the lengths of school terms and the school day. This may mean pupils have different term dates or spend more time at school than their state school peers, and they may also have smaller class sizes. Some also choose to have mandatory after-school activities, to enrich the pupil’s experience at school.
Some free schools have a specialism in one subject which allows their students to focus on it. These could include sport, drama, or technology, and suit children with particular talents or passions as they allow the child to learn more about their chosen subject from specialist teachers.
What types of free schools are there?
Aside from what is described above, there are a few specialised subcategories of free school. Not all free schools fall into these categories, and schools will make it clear if they do.
These are typically small schools, which teach mainstream qualifications and the national curriculum. However, the difference is that they do so through project-style learning, meaning students work in realistic situations as well as academically. This could entail going into the local community and working together with others to improve their workplace abilities for later in life. They work with local employers and teachers, following a curriculum that is designed for work and further education in their chosen subjects. They often undertake work experience regularly, furthering their chances at employment after leaving school.
University technical colleges
These are collages specialising in teaching engineering and construction-style subjects, along with business skills and IT. They are typically sponsored by universities, employers, and further education colleges, and often have work experience and technical qualifications as part of the curriculum. They focus on preparing students for employments in trade and industry positions, but also have connections with university level education.
These are schools that take students who show a particular aptitude in maths. They are sponsored by a university and require all pupils to study A-Levels in maths and further maths, as well as typically physics and computer science. Math schools are only for 16-19-year-old pupils, and prioritise disadvantaged students for entry, primarily girls. They aim to prepare students for further study of mathematics at university by developing their problem solving and analytical skills with well-balanced extracurricular activities
For examples of qualifications schools may choose to do instead of GCSEs, please check out this Think Student article.
How many free schools are there in the UK?
In the UK there are over 400 free schools open and the government plans to increase this to over 500 in the near future. Many of these schools have a faith ethos, which means they may be run by a religious organisation or follow religious traditions in their teaching, but not all of them follow this model.
There are 17 Church of England schools, 3 Hindu schools, 7 Jewish schools, 17 Muslim schools, 15 Christian schools, and 1 Sikh school. These are not to be confused with faith schools, as they are not required to teach the national curriculum, but they have similar ethos and goals, and may even work together for some events during the school year.
Parents or groups who wish to open a free school, or who are interested in the options in their community should ask their local council about free schools in their area. They will have more information about the application process, and whether this is an option in their community.
Who can go to a free school?
Free schools are required to be “all ability” schools, unlike grammar schools. This means they cannot select pupils on an academic basis, such as by using tests or entrance exams. They are subject to the School Admissions Code, which all state schools must follow.
This code means they cannot discriminate against pupils and must prioritise those who have been in the care system, adopted, students with special educational needs, and students who have protected characteristics for entry. Parents who found free schools can be guaranteed places at their school, and they are also allowed to guarantee places for the teacher’s children, as a condition of their contract.
Free schools are, as in the name, free. This means they cannot discriminate based on social class on entry, so parents of lower socio-economic status cannot be denied entry for their children as they may be unable to pay for trips. Free Schools are not allowed to be run as businesses, so the school cannot be run for-profit by the organisation in charge of them.
However, free schools with a religious ethos are also subject to the 50% rule, whereby they must allocate at least half of their places without regard to faith if they are oversubscribed. However, they are allowed to take at least 50% of students who are in their faith and can set criteria for families to meet similar to faith schools. For more information on this please read this article from Think Student about faith schools.
The exception to this is the Maths School system. These sixth forms are allowed to select students based on an exam, to ensure that their entrants are those with extraordinary maths interest and ability. However, these schools must take particular care to admit girls and those with protected characteristics under the equality act, in order to improve the chances of these disadvantaged groups.
Do free schools follow the national curriculum?
No, free schools are not required to teach the national curriculum. Most choose to keep some elements of it while incorporating their own parts too. They may teach whatever they choose, providing it is “balanced and broadly based”, which leaves free schools with much freedom over what their students learn and how they develop their passions.
This is why many free schools can have specialisms such as drama or maths because they are not required to give equal focus to all subjects and can tailor their choices to student’s needs and wants. This can make them a great choice for students with a passion or talent for a particular subject.
The only stipulation is that free schools must teach English, maths, science, and provision for RE (although it is not compulsory for all students to take part in this) in order to get funding. This is checked by regular Ofsted inspections similar to the ones all state schools must submit to, which free schools often do well in due to their community focussed ethos and values.
For more information on what schools are required to follow the national curriculum, please check out this Think Student article.
What are the benefits of free schools?
Free schools allow parents and teachers to respond to community needs in creating a school. They often feel they can drive up standards and improve results by being directly involved in the creation of a school.
As previously discussed, a specialism can be chosen for the school like music, technology, or sport. They can choose to put more focus on this subject in lessons and extracurriculars, particularly suiting children with passions or talents in that subject. This can help parents to support their children to follow their interests, even if they are not knowledgeable about them themselves.
Also, free schools can be in many different types of building and are not restricted to purpose-built schools. Many are in disused shops, old schools, offices, libraries, or even churches. This is a good way for old spaces to return to positive community centres, and for the school to be integrated into the local area.
What are the drawbacks of free schools?
Teaching staff employed by the school are not required to be qualified, as mentioned earlier, which could cause problems in terms of teaching quality. They can also pay staff whatever they like, which can cause unfair working conditions for their teachers and support assistants.
Some parents have raised concerns that faith free schools who are not required to follow the national curriculum may teach with a fundamentalist slant. However, this has been protected for by the Department of Education, who have made rules around what can be taught, for example, creationism is not allowed to be taught as a valid scientific theory, even in fundamentalist Christian schools.
Free schools can also be seen as causing existing state schools to close as the highest scoring pupils are drawn to newly created schools with exciting opportunities, leading to the original schools losing funding and places and going downhill. However, in the few years that free schools have existed this has not been proven to happen.
For more information on the benefits and downsides of free schools, please check out this article from The School Run.