Free Schools, Put Simply

By Senior Campaign Agent Sophie Savage

Late last year, The Education Policy Institute released an in-depth report on free schools. With this new report came the controversy that has surrounded free schools since their beginning. Here, we look at where they began, how they’ve developed and why they remain to be amongst the most divisive education policy issues in the UK.

Free schools are a type of state school and academy, so they are funded by the government – unlike private schools which are funded by the fees they charge. However, they are not under local authority control, which is in contrast to the majority of state schools. 

History of Free Schools

Free schools were introduced by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition in 2010. They were part of government focus at the time to make the school system more autonomous and independent from local authority; they used policy concerning academies and free schools to achieve this. 

In July 2010, the Education Secretary at the time, Michael Gove, asked for proposals from groups who wished to set up free schools, both primary schools or secondary schools.

This was followed in 2011 by another invitation from Gove asking groups to submit applications to set up UTCs (University Technical Colleges) and studio schools. These are also academies, like free schools, however, these schools are for 14-19 year olds and have different focuses. UTCs focus on teaching technical subjects and studio schools focus on practical-based learning. Like Free Schools, UTCs and studio schools were important factors in wider discussions in education policy at the time concerning the need to diversify and create more independence in the school system.

How do free schools work?

Free schools can be set up by a variety of groups, such as parents, teachers, charities, trusts, or religious organisations. The group wishing to set up a free school must submit a full business proposal detailing the demand for schools in the area the school will be located. They must also outline the type of education that would be provided by their free school, as free schools, unlike state schools, do not have to follow the national curriculum. These applications are received and accepted or rejected by the Department of Education, not local authorities. This speaks to the erasure of the role of the local authority in the education system. 

In terms of funding, free schools are publicly funded, just like state schools, and are not run for a profit. However, they have more freedom over pay and work conditions. Free schools, like academies, are allowed to set their own pay and working time for teachers without having to follow the national pay and conditions framework. 

Notably, at free schools, it is also not a requirement for employed teachers to obtain a qualified teacher status (QTS). 

Pros

Below are some of the reasons for the support of free schools:

  • Evidence from a report published by the Policy Exchange shows that the lowest-performing schools which are nearby to mainstream free schools have improved their results. It is argued that this pattern is a result of driving up competition, thus creating a better educational system. This pattern is seen again in the comparison of the lowest-performing schools with a free school nearby and the lowest-performing schools without a free school nearby, where those with a free school nearby are improving their results at a faster rate than those without a free school nearby. Therefore, some argue that free schools help every student, even those who are not attending one. 
  • Some argue that free schools fulfil the demand for schools in areas where there is a need for more school places. Further evidence from the Policy Exchange and figures from the National Audit Office in 2015 show that 72% of free schools are being set up where there is a projected, so predicted future need, for more school places. This ‘pro’ is highly disputed.

Cons

The following is a list of criticism of free schools:

  • Whilst the free schools should receive the same funding as local-authority ran state schools, a report by the NAO in 2017 shows that, on average, the cost of a place per pupil is higher in free schools than is normal state schools. This is likely due to the extra cost of land acquisition associated with creating a new school – therefore this criticism may not be enduring, as once the land is purchased the price per pupil should be more comparable.
  • Some argue that free schools do not help those most disadvantaged in society. Research by the Institute of Education shows that free schools’ student intake tends to have a lower proportion of free school meal (FSM) receivers than the average for the area they are based in. 
  • Some argue that free schools are being built in areas without a real need for more school places. The NAO found that there are a number of free schools with spare capacity – so less students than they can accommodate for. As funding for schools is based on a per-pupil basis, this means the free schools are struggling to break even. This implies that free schools are wasteful in terms of funding. 
  • It is also argued that free schools are given too much autonomy: with their ability to employ teachers who do not have a QTS and their freedom to set wages. Some believe that schools should be controlled by local authority, as they traditionally have been, as this allows for more accountability and homogeny across the education system.

Sources and Further Reading:


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