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Free schools and academies: We cut through the confusion of the ever-changing world of education


Publicly-funded independent schools which receive their money directly from government instead of the local council. Although the day-to-day running of the school remains with the head teacher or principal, they are overseen by individual charitable bodies called academy trusts and may be part of a multi-academy chain.

Some academies have sponsors such as businesses, universities, other schools, faith groups or voluntary groups, responsible for improving the performance of their schools and provide advice, support and expertise.

They have more freedom than other state schools over their finances and curriculum, and do not need to follow national pay and conditions for teachers.They can also set their own term times.

The policy, which originated under Labour, aimed to improve struggling schools, mainly in deprived areas.But this changed dramatically under the coalition government - which saw the academy model as a way promote excellence in England's schools. Now over half of all secondaries in England are academies. David Cameron has made it clear he wants all schools to become academies in the coming years.

While the initial policy did aim to improve under-performing schools, the purpose of academies changed dramatically under the coalition government. The struggling schools model does still exist under the sponsored-academy framework, where failing schools are taken over and run by an academy trust, usually under a new principal and governing body. Now all schools - primary as well as secondary - have been invited to convert to academy status, but priority has being given to those deemed by education watchdog Ofsted to be 'outstanding' or 'performing well'. The government has warned that failing schools could be forced to convert to academies.


The government argues academies drive up standards by putting more power in the hands of head teachers and cutting bureaucracy. It says they have been shown to improve twice as fast as other state schools. Schools have freedom over their finances and curriculum. Each school gets £25,000 to convert to an academy from the Department for Education. Academies can potentially top up their budget by as much as 10pc.

What do teachers say?

Teaching unions have been highly-critical of what they term 'academisation' and claim it is part of a wider plan to privatise schools. A survey published by the National Union of Teachers revealed 76% believe that the forced academisation would damage education.

Free school?

Free schools are new, independent state-funded schools and have already sparked many arguments for and against. Inspired by new schools programmes in the US and Sweden, they provide a way for parents, teachers, businesses, charities, faith groups, universities, existing schools and other organisations to open a school.

The first free schools were opened in 2011. They are independent, but funded by the government. Any 'suitable sponsor' can apply to the Secretary of State for Education for approval to open a free school. Private schools can apply to convert to a free school to access state funding. Free schools do not need council funding to open and are not-for-profit.

Free schools v Academies?

Little difference

Both are not controlled by councils and get funding from the government, but free schools are usually new. All new schools in England can only be free schools. Academies are usually created by converting existing local authority-run schools.

Free schools can:

  • Set their own pay and conditions for staff
  • Employ teachers without qualified teacher status
  • Determine their own admission arrangements
  • Decide upon their own curriculum
  • Set the length of terms and school days
  • Operate independently of their local authority
  • Set up wherever there is need in the community

What do critics say?

The government says the free schools programme gives parents and teachers the chance to create a new school if they are unhappy with state schools in a local area, and that competition will drive up standards. The government also argues free schools will help provide much needed school places. But critics, such as Labour and teaching unions, say free schools are expensive and often not in the areas where school places are needed.


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