School types

When it comes to choosing a school for your child, you’ll probably find there are more options now than when you were at school.

In England, at both primary and secondary levels, there could be several different types of schools and colleges in your area, from state-funded free schools and academies to technical colleges and private schools.

They will all have different advantages so to help you decide where’s best for your child, we’ve put together some guidance on what you might expect from each one. Nothing can replace seeing a school in person though, so before you submit your school application make an appointment to meet the headteacher and look around.

State schools 

All children in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are entitled to a free place at a state school, which is funded by the government either directly or via the local authority. Alternatively, your child may attend an independent, or fee-paying school.

Here, we explain more about each type of school, so you’re fully informed and able to make the best decisions for your child. 

In England 

Maintained schools

Most state schools are maintained schools’ which means they are maintained’ by the Local Authority (LA) and must follow the national curriculum. They can be primary or secondary schools. 


Academies are publicly-funded independent schools at either primary or secondary level. They are still funded by the government but the money goes directly to them, rather than via the LA. This means they have more control over how they do certain things, for example, they don’t have to follow the national curriculum and can set their own term times. They do however have to follow the same rules on admissions, special educational needs and exclusions as other state schools and children sit the same exams. They are also inspected by Ofsted. 

Academy trusts

Academies are run by Academy Trusts or Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) if they are responsible for more than one school. They are not-for-profit companies that employ the staff and have trustees who are responsible for performance. 

MATs may run any number of schools, primary and secondary, in any location. 

Free schools

Free schools are a type of academy and operate in a very similar way. They receive their funding directly from the government, have control over the curriculum, teachers’ pay and conditions and term times, must follow the same School Admissions Code and are regulated and are inspected by Ofsted.

The difference between a free school and an academy is who runs them. Free schools can be set up and run by individual groups of parents, teachers, businesses, universities, independent schools, charities or voluntary groups. Like the Trusts or Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) that run academies, the groups running free schools are not allowed to make a financial profit. 

There are two types of free school:

● University technical colleges specialise in subjects such as engineering and lead to technical qualifications for pupils. The curriculum is designed by the university and employers, who also provide work experience for students

● Studio schools deliver mainstream qualifications through project-based learning. This means working in realistic situations as well as learning academic subjects

Grammar schools

Grammar schools were set up to enable the brightest pupils in the state system to receive the highest standard of education so that students from less wealthy backgrounds could have the same opportunities as those at private schools — but without the cost.

They are state-funded, non-fee-paying selective secondary schools. This means that admission is based on academic ability at the age of ten, which is assessed by an exam called the 11-plus. Only those who get the highest marks can attend. 

Since 1998 there has been a ban on new grammar schools and the focus has instead been on improving standards in all state schools. Only a relatively small number of grammar schools still exist. 

City technology colleges

City technology colleges and the city college for the technology of the arts’ are independent schools in urban areas. They’re funded by central government but companies can also contribute.

City technology colleges emphasise teaching science and technology. The city college for the technology of the arts teaches technology relating to performing and creative arts, for example interactive digital design.

State boarding schools

State boarding schools provide free education but charge fees for boarding. Most state boarding schools are academies, some are free schools and some are run by local authorities.

They give priority to children who have a particular need to board, and will assess children’s suitability for boarding.

Charities such as Buttle UK or the Royal National Children’s Foundation can sometimes help with the cost of boarding.

Contact the State Boarding Forum for more information about state boarding schools, eligibility and how to apply. Although most are in England, there is one state boarding school in Northern Ireland. 

Special schools

Special schools are those that provide an education for children with a special educational need or disability. 

The type of special school available varies from area to area but there are four broad types, listed according to their specialism:

● Communication and interaction

● Cognition and learning

● Social, emotional and mental health

● Sensory and physical needs

Maintained special schools still have to follow the National Curriculum, but they have the freedom to teach in line with pupils’ specific needs, making adjustments where necessary. 

Non-maintained special schools such as academies, free schools and independent schools, can devise their own curriculum.

Faith schools

Faith schools can set different admissions criteria (although anyone can apply for a place). They follow the national curriculum but can choose what they teach in religious studies.

Faith academies do not have to teach the national curriculum and have their own admissions processes.

Private schools

Private, or independent, schools charge fees to attend instead of being funded by the government. Pupils do not have to follow the national curriculum. All private schools must be registered with the government and are inspected regularly. 

There are also private schools which specialise in teaching children with special educational needs.

In Wales 

Maintained schools

These are wholly or substantially funded by the local authority and can be one of the following:

Community schools

Owned and run by the local authority, which sets the entrance criteria and allocates places. Community Special Schools deliver special education, for example to pupils with special educational needs. 

Voluntary controlled schools 

Run by a voluntary organisation (usually the Roman Catholic Church or the Church in Wales) and closely controlled by the local authority. The local authority employs the staff and sets the entrance criteria, but the school land and buildings are owned by a charity (often the church) which appoints some members of the governing body.

Voluntary aided schools 

Run by a voluntary organisation and enjoy greater policy and financial independence than voluntary controlled schools. They tend to be religious or faith schools. The governing body employs the staff and sets the entrance criteria while the school buildings and land are usually owned by a charity (often the church).

Foundation schools

Owned either by the governing body or by a charitable foundation. The governing body sets the entrance criteria and there is limited local authority control. 

Welsh schools

There are also different schools in Wales depending on their use of Welsh. All children must learn Welsh, but some schools use it regularly in day-to-day instruction and teaching too. 

Your child’s school will fall into one of the following categories:

Primary schools

Category 1: English-medium. The main language is English and pupils learn to speak, read, write and listen in English and learn Welsh as part of their languages provision. Contact with parents and carers is in English. At least 15% of your child’s school activities (both inside and outside the classroom) will be in Welsh. 

Category 2: Dual language. Children learn to speak, read, write and listen in both English and Welsh. At least 50% of your child’s school’s activities (both inside and outside the classroom) will be in Welsh: schools may either choose to deliver everything in Welsh up to age seven with choice offered thereafter, or deliver 50% of school activities in Welsh throughout.

Category 3: Welsh-medium. These schools have a strong Welsh language ethos at their core. All lessons will be in Welsh until children are seven years old (although English is used as necessary to ensure understanding) when English lessons are introduced. From then, at least 80% of your child’s activities (both inside and outside the classroom) will be in Welsh. Parent communications are provided in both languages. 

Secondary schools

Category 1: English-medium. Your child will learn to speak, read, write and listen in English and learn Welsh as part of their languages provision. At least 15% of your child’s school activities (both inside and outside the classroom) will be in Welsh. 

Category 2: Dual language. Your child will learn to speak, read, write and listen in English and Welsh and will have the option of following at least 40% of their school’s activities (both inside and outside the classroom) in Welsh. 

Category 3: Welsh-medium and Category 3P: Designated Welsh-medium. The main language of both of these schools is Welsh, and they have a strong Welsh language ethos at their core, but your child will learn to speak, read, write and listen in both Welsh and English. In Category 3 schools at least 70% of learning, experience and school activities outside of the classroom are in Welsh, while in category 3P schools it’s 90%.

In Northern Ireland 

Controlled schools

Controlled schools are managed and funded by the Education Authority (EA) through school Boards of Governors’ (BoGs). Primary and secondary school BoGs consist of representatives of transferors — mainly the Protestant churches — along with representatives of parents, teachers and the EA.

Controlled nursery, grammar and special school BoGs consist only of representatives of parents, teachers and the EA. There are no transferor governors.

Within the Controlled school sector there are a number of Controlled Integrated schools and a small number of Irish-Medium schools.

The Controlled Schools Support Council (CSSC) supports and represents the interests of Controlled schools.

Catholic maintained schools

Catholic maintained schools are managed by BoGs, who are nominated by trustees — mainly Roman Catholic — along with parents, teachers and EA representatives.

The Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) is responsible for the effective management of the Catholic Maintained sector and is the employing authority for teachers in Catholic Maintained schools.

The Catholic schools trustee service is funded by the Department of Education to provide support and advice to trustees on area planning.

Voluntary Grammar schools

These are managed by a BoG. A BoG is constituted in line with each school’s scheme of management — usually representatives of foundation governors, parents, teachers the DE and in most cases Education Authority representatives.

The BoG is the employing authority and is responsible for the employment of all staff in its school.

Integrated schools

These schools invite Protestants and Roman Catholics to come together in the same space with other traditions in order to improve their understanding of one another, their own cultures, religions and values.

Each grant-maintained Integrated school is managed by a BoG, consisting of trustees or foundation governors along with parents, teacher and DE representatives, which is the employing authority and is responsible for the employment of staff.

There are also a number of Controlled Integrated schools (see the section on controlled’ schools above).

Irish-Medium schools

Irish-Medium education is education provided in an Irish speaking school or unit. There are Controlled and Maintained Irish-Medium schools and units. Maintained schools are voluntary schools owned by trustees and managed by boards of governors which consist of members nominated by trustees along with representatives of parents, teachers and the Education Authority. See Controlled’ schools section above for Controlled Irish-Medium schools and units.

Special schools

A Special school is a Controlled or Voluntary school which is specially organised to provide education for pupils with special needs and is recognised by the DE as a Special school.

Independent schools

An Independent school is a school at which full-time education is provided for pupils aged from four to 16 and is not grant-aided. These schools set their own curriculum and admissions policies and are funded by fees paid by parents and income from investments.

Each Independent school must be registered with the Department of Education and is inspected regularly by Education Training Inspectorate.