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Free schools

Additional money for free schools was announced by the Chancellor (Philip Hammond) in his spring budget of 2017. In September 2018, 53 new free schools opened, providing an additional 40,000 school places. We outline what this means for education in England, and give you a brief overview of free schools, including what they are, when and why they were founded, and arguments for and against their increased funding.  

What are free schools?

Free schools can be found in England, and they are a type of academy, which means that they are state-funded and non-fee-paying schools, and are independent of Local Authority (LA) control over their budget. Instead, they are funded directly by central government. Like other academies, free schools are exempt from teaching the national curriculum and retain control over teachers' pay and conditions and the length of school terms and days. Free schools can be established in suitable existing buildings, and don’t require new construction of bespoke grounds. Like all state-funded schools, free schools are regulated by Ofsted and are inspected in the same way as other secondary schools, usually within two years of opening.

How do free schools differ from academies?

Although free schools are a type of academy, they differ in that free schools can be established and run by individual groups, sometimes with a particular ethos, such as religious organisations. They can be set up by parents, teachers, businesses, universities, independent schools, charities or voluntary groups, who are required to present a business case to the Department for Education which has to be approved before the free school can be founded. Like the Trusts or Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) that run academies, the groups running free schools are not allowed to make financial profit. 

Types of free school

There are two types of free school:

  • University technical colleges - specialising in subjects such as engineering, leading to technical qualifications for pupils
  • Studio schools - small schools delivering mainstream qualifications through project-based learning.

When were free schools introduced?

The implementation of free schools was part of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government’s Big Society initiative, under David Cameron’s leadership. They were championed by then-Education Secretary Michael Gove, and the first new schools opened their doors in 2011. Between 2010 and 2015 more than 400 free schools were approved for opening in England, allocating places to more than 230,000 students.

Why were free schools created?

The thinking behind free schools was that they would offer parents more choice in the educational landscape, either by enabling them to establish their own school, or by having the option to send their child to an alternative school should they be unhappy with the standard of education in nearby state schools. It’s hoped that the increased competition from free schools will universally drive up standards of education in all state-funded schools. 

Are free schools selective?

Currently (as of September 2018), free schools are non-selective, and are required to accept pupils based on the same Schools Admissions Code that regulates all state-funded schools. Unlike grammar schools (which are also state-funded) free schools are not allowed to select pupils on the basis of academic ability. Parents apply for a place for their child in exactly the same way as for other state-funded schools.

After a hint in March 2017 that selective free schools may be enabled, the government's consultation response to its Schools that work for everyone white paper has confirmed this will not be the case after all. "We will continue to expect all proposers of faith free schools to promote integration and inclusivity, including by demonstrating that the school is likely to attract applications from pupils from different backgrounds and different communities and how they will ensure that all feel welcome and able to play a full and active role in the school."

What are the funding plans for free schools in England?

The government pledged to provide £320 million to help fund up to 140 new free schools. The Conservatives remain committed to a previous manifesto pledge of opening 500 free schools by September 2020, while the rest will open during the next Parliament. It is estimated that the extra funding will help to pave the way for over 1,000 free schools to be operating in England by 2022. 

What are the arguments for further investment in free schools?

According to the DfE, a further 420,000 new school places will be needed between 2016 and 2021 as the pupil population rises. More free schools will go some way to addressing the concerns over places and the already stretched resources in the state school system. 

The New Schools Network (NSN) - a charity that campaigns for public and political support for free schools, and helps groups who wish to set up their own free school through the whole process - has welcomed the development. Toby Young, Director of the NSN, said: “It’s a recognition that free schools are the most cost-effective way of providing much-needed new places, as well as popular with parents and more likely to be ranked Outstanding by Ofsted than any other type of school.” 

The general argument in favour of free schools is that they provide parents with more choice over where they can educate their child. 

What are the arguments against further investment in free schools?

Some education leaders such as Dr Mary Bousted, General secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), have suggested that teachers and head teachers in state schools with concerns about real-term cuts will feel that the money made available would be better spent on schools in the state system, because the money for free schools has been earmarked to benefit relatively few children.  She said, "the National Audit Office found that it costs far more to create a place in a free school than it does in a mainstream school." 

The free schools programme has also been criticised for going over-budget. Liberal Democrat education spokesman John Pugh said that it is "unbelievable" for the government, "to focus money on more free schools when the "free schools programme was shown to have overspent." It’s also noted that in some areas, free schools are attracting low numbers of pupils, and some have closed owing to financial unsustainability. While primary free schools have generally been established in areas of demand, only 19 per cent of secondary places in free schools have so far been in districts forecasting high or severe need, according to the National Audit Office's report.

A general argument against free schools is that they benefit only middle-class parents with the time to set up free schools and that they divert money away from existing state schools.

Reviewed: September 2018

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