This is relevant to the educational policy aspect of the education topic within the sociology of education. It should be especially useful for evaluating coalition, or new ‘New Right’ policies.
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||Free 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.
There are currently over 500 Free Schools operating in England and Wales. In 2019 the government announced a new wave of them and there are around another 220 currently in the process of being established. (Source: EPI)
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.
Free Schools in England Report 2019
A recent 2019 report by the Education Policy Institute examined the performance of Free Schools, focusing especially on the kind of areas in which they are opening up.
They found mixed results depending on whether the schools were primary or secondary, but some of the key findings are as follows (NB be sure to go check the link out!)
- Primary schools have successfully increased school places, because these tend to be open up where there is a demand (a need) for school places
- Secondary schools have been less successful, these tend to be opened up where there are already sufficient school places.
- Secondary free schools tend to get set up in better off areas – more than 3 times as many places have been created in affluent areas than in the poorest
- Having said that, FSM pupils in free schools get better results than FSM pupils in other types of school
- HOWEVER, the report notes that this is because Free Schools tend to be set up in those areas where FSM pupils do better than average (so it seems like there’s cream skimming going on!)
- The report also notes that Free schools are more likely to be urban and ethnically mixed.
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:
- 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….
Arguments against Free Schools
Critics argue that…
- Free schools benefit primarily middle-class parents with the time to set them up, fuelling 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.
- 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 has suggested 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.