What are Free Schools?

There's so much choice when it comes to choosing a school, from a Free School, to an academy and a standard school? Here we look at what exactly a Free School is, and how your schoolchild can apply.

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Up and down the country, Free Schools are opening to meet the high demand for education that’s desperately needed, especially in impoverished areas where parents may not be able to afford to send their children to school. But what is a Free School?

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So what exactly does ‘free school’ mean?

Free Schools are places of education funded by the taxpayer for children of all abilities. Free Schools give talented and inspired teachers, charities and parents the chance to address the demand of their areas and open a school. Over half of the Free Schools established are in the most deprived 30% of communities.

“We are not being prescriptive about Free Schools and so they come in all shapes and sizes. Some are housed in existing schools. Others will be based in a range of refurbished and adapted buildings, including a former library in London and an office building in Norwich. The critical point is that we have been thinking creatively about how to secure excellent new schools at a time when budgets are tight,” said the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, in his speech to The Policy Exchange in June 2011.

“On a human level, it’s about meeting parents’ desire for a good local school – a school that’s easy to get to, that feels like part of the community,” added Michael.

Where did the idea come from?

Following a huge demand for good schools and more choice in the last election, the Department of Education created the Free Schools programme. The programme provides teachers, parents, charities or community groups with the opportunity to set up their own new state-funded schools to raise educational standards.

In 2010, parliament passed a law called the Academies Act 2010. Legally, Free Schools are covered by the act, which aims to provide all children with a world-class free education.

What types of Free Schools are there?

At the moment, the Free Schools that have opened up around the country must have at least five children of compulsory school age in full time provision.

The government is not planning on creating nursery Free Schools for pre-school aged children. It is however, taking applications for 16 – 19 Free Schools (schools for teens aged 16 to 19), which are planning to open in 2012 or beyond.

What’s the difference between a Free School and normal primary schools?

Free Schools are semi-independent and each one will vary on things such as the school day hours, school terms, teachers’ pay and school conditions.

However, there is no major difference in the lessons taught in Free Schools. They are required by law to teach the basic subjects from the National Curriculum and give their pupils a broad and balanced education, but have more freedom to depart from the curriculum where appropriate. The three main subjects considered compulsory within the National Curriculum are English, maths and science, so these lessons will be expected on the timetables of all Free Schools. 

Free Schools must also teach religious education and hold a daily act of collective worship, but what type is determined by the school’s funding agreement and also depends on its religious designation. In a school without a religious designation, the collective worship will be of a broadly Christian nature.

Are there any disadvantages to Free Schools?

Free Schools are allowed to employ teachers, even if they don’t have teaching qualifications. However, the Department of Education provides a thorough assessment of a Free School application before it opens. And as mentioned above, all Free School teachers must obey the National Curriculum by teaching pupils the most important school subjects.

However, not all Free Schools are starting from scratch. When Batley Grammar School, a private school near Leeds, announced it was becoming a Free School all the current parents were delighted, because they would no longer be paying up to £9,000 a year in fees. Apparently, up to 40 Free School application proposals to the Department of Education were from private schools wanting to meet the local need of parents, so poor teaching is definitely not an issue in every Free School. 

Where can you find your local Free School?

In September 2011, 24 Free Schools opened around the UK. To find out where your local Free School is, visit the Department of Education.

More Free Schools will open from 2012, according to the Department of Education.

How do you apply for a place at a Free School?

Free Schools have their own individual admissions criteria, but parents will have to submit their applications to the Local Authority who will then offer places to children. Applications for Free Schools will be required to coincide with other schools’ admissions processes in their area. There are no guaranteed places at any Free Schools.

If a school is undersubscribed, every child who applies will be admitted, whether a faith or non-faith applicant.

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If a school is oversubscribed, then 50% of places must be allocated to children without reference to faith, to allow places for the broader local community.

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