This is relevant to the educational policy aspect of the education topic within the sociology of education.
What Are Free Schools?
A Free School in England is a type of Academy, a non-profit-making, state-funded school which is free to attend. Free schools are not controlled by a Local Authority (LA) but instead governed by anon-profit charitable trust.
To set up a Free School, founding groups submit applications to the Department for Education. Groups include those run by parents, education charities and religious groups. Ongoing funding is on an equivalent basis with other locally controlled state maintained schools, although additional start-up grants to establish the schools are also paid.
Between 2010 and 2015 more than 400 free schools were approved for opening in England by the Coalition Government, representing more than 230,000 school places across the country.
Similarities between Local Authority schools and Free Schools
They are both free for students to attend
They are both have similar amounts of funding
They are both subject to same rules about how the select students (they have similar admissions policies)
They are both subjected to Ofsted inspections
Differences between Free Schools and Regular State Schools
Local Authority Schools
Must follow the National Curriculum
Don’t have to follow the National Curriculum
Funding controlled by Local Authority
Funding comes straight from government
‘standard’ school day and term times
Free to set school days and term times
Teachers must be qualified
Teachers don’t have to be qualified
A brief history and overview of types of Free School
Free Schools were introduced by the Coalition government in 2010 general election as part of the Big Society initiative. The first 24 Free Schools opened in autumn 2011.
Since 2011, any Local Authority in need of a new school must seek proposals for an Academy or Free School, with a traditional Local Authority school only being allowed if no suitable Free School or academy is proposed. Since July 2015 the government is regarded all new academies as Free Schools – hence if there’s demand to establish them, any new school being established will be a free school.
To date, since 2010 there have been around 400 Free Schools established, which translates into about 250 000 school places, and the government hopes to establish an other 500 Free Schools over the next few years.
Types of free school
The majority of free schools are similar in size and shape to other types of academy. However, the following are distinctive sub-types of free school:
Studio school – A small free school, usually with around 300 pupils, using project-based learning.
University Technical College – A free school for the 14-18 age group, specialising in practical, employment focused subjects, sponsored by a university, employer or further education college.
Arguments for Free Schools
Free schools are a very good example of a neoliberal policy – the government is taking power away from Local Education Authorities (local government) and giving more power to parents, private businesses and charities to run schools.
Supporters claim that
- There is a higher proportion of outstanding free schools – Twice as likely according to C4’s Full Fact
- Free schools create more local competition and drive-up standards –
- They allow parents to have more choice in the type of education their child receives, much like parents who send their children to independent schools do.
- They also claim that free schools benefit children from all backgrounds – which could especially be the case with….
- We need more school places – because of the recent increase in the birth rate, not to mention increasing migration and free schools could play a crucial role in this. In fact, where primary schools are concerned, about 70% of applications for free schools are in the areas where there is most need for new schools (See Channel Four’s Full Fact)
Arguments against Free Schools
Critics argue that…
- There is a higher proportion of failing Free Schools – According to this article (March 2015) from The Independent newspaper Free Schools are a failure: One third of them have been rated ‘inadequate’ or ‘requires improvement’ compared to only one fifth of Local Authority Schools.
- This list of failures includes three school closures, worst of which seems to have been the Al-Madinah free school which imposed strict Islamic practice on staff and students (for example by forcing even non-muslim female teachers to cover up) and was found to be so bad that OFSTED had to create a new category of ‘dysfunctional’ to grade it before ordering it to close.
- Free schools benefit primarily middle-class parents with the time to set them up, fueling social segregation – I can really see this being the case with ‘studio schools’. (I can’t help but imagine a nice, small school with extensive playground and playing fields in a Devonshire village, so nice in fact that the yummies occasionally leave their 4WDs at home and walk the school run, at least when they’re not in the mood for heels.)
- Free schools divert money away from existing schools – There is a set amount of money in the education budget, and if free schools (and academies) get initial start up grants from the government (which some do) this means relatively less money for the Local Education Authority maintained schools.
- They are not actually needed and have lead to a surplus of school places – More than half of Free Schools opening in 2012 opened with 60% or less of the student numbers predicted by the impact assessment documents of each institution, leaving more than 10% spare places. Elsewhere, where Free Schools are fully subscribed, regular Local Authority schools have surplus capacity. This replication of capacity is grossly inefficient.5. People don’t actually want Free Schools – Polling in April 2015 put public support for Conservative proposals to increase the number of Free Schools by at least 500 at 26%.
- While the image of Free schools might be of motivated parents setting them up, Peter Wilby, writing in The Guardian, predicted that Free Schools would be run by private companies rather than parents, teachers or voluntary groups. There is also the fact that in 2012 over 60% of free school applications were made by faith groups.
Analysis – Free Schools Good or Bad?
To be honest at this stage it’s difficult to say – because Free Schools have only been around for five years, and because there are so few of them – it is difficult to make reliable comparisons between the results of free schools and local authority schools.
As it stands, Free Schools seem to be having a polarising effect on educational achievement – with both a higher proportion of schools achieving outstanding and being graded unsatisfactory at the same time. This is pretty much what you’d expect when you give middle class parents etc. with cultural capital a fat wedge of cash and a considerable degree of freedom to run their schools in a way that they see fit.
Whether or not you think polarisation is a good thing probably depends on your politics. If you’re right-leaning (neoliberal or new right) you’d probably interpret these trends in a positive way – more success at the top end should eventually drag all of the other schools up, even if there’s a few initial teething problems with a higher proportion of schools failing at the bottom. Eventually, demand for those failing schools should fall so they’ll either close or be taken over by the more successful schools.
However, if you’re more left-leaning then you’d probably hypothesise that the children in the outstanding free schools are probably those from middle class backgrounds, and those in the failing schools – probably more likely to be from working class backgrounds, so all we are seeing here is an intensification of the reproduction of class inequality, although we don’t yet have the data to assess this.
Find out More…
Given the ideological nature of Free Schools, be careful of where you source your information form – A good starting point to find out more is go to Channel Four’s Full Fact which takes a cautious look at the statistics on various aspects of Free Schools.