Free school (England)

This article is about the education policy in England. For other uses, see Free School.
Free schools have been advocated by the former Conservative Education Secretary Michael Gove.

A free school in England is a type of academy, a non-profit-making, independent, State-funded school which is free to attend but which is not controlled by a local authority.[1] They are subject to the same School Admissions Code as all other State-funded schools.[2][3]

Like other types of academy, free schools are governed by non-profit charitable trusts that sign funding agreements with the Secretary of State.[4][5] There are different model funding agreements for single academy trusts and multi academy trusts.[6][7]

Free schools are expected to offer a broad and balanced curriculum,[8] are subject to the same Ofsted inspections as all other maintained schools and are expected to comply with standard performance measures.[9]

To set up a free school, founding groups submit applications to the Department for Education.[10] Groups include those run by parents, education charities and religious groups. Start-up grants are provided to establish the schools and ongoing funding is on an equivalent basis with other locally controlled state maintained schools.[11]

From May 2015, usage of the term free school was also extended to new academies set up via a local authority competition.[12]

Studio schools and university technical colleges are both sub-types of free school.[13]

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.[14]

Policy creation and implementation

Free schools were introduced by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition following the 2010 general election as part of the Big Society initiative to make it possible for parents, teachers, charities and businesses to set up their own schools.[10] Free schools are an extension of the existing academies programme.[9] The Academies Act 2010, which allowed all existing state schools to become academies, also authorised the creation of free schools. The first 24 free schools opened in autumn 2011.[15]

The Education Act 2011 gave rise to the academy/free school presumption; Government advice which clarified that any local authority in need of a new school must in most circumstances seek proposals for an academy or free school,[16] with a traditional community school only being allowed if no suitable free school or academy is proposed.[17] In July 2015 the advice was renamed the free school presumption reflecting the fact that the newly elected Conservative Government regarded all new academies established after May 2015 as free schools.[12]

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:[18]

Free School Approvals

The Department for Education publishes and maintains the list of established free schools and those that are due to be established.[21]

Free schools approvals are processed and announced in batches, known as 'waves'.[22]

Wave 1: In the autumn of 2010, Education Secretary Michael Gove announced that 16 proposals for free schools had been given a green light by the Government and were expected to open in September 2011.[23]

This number eventually grew to 24:[24][25] Five of the original 16 schools were faith schools: two Jewish, one Evangelical Anglican, one Hindu and one Sikh.[26]

Wave 2: In September 2012 the Department of Education announced 55 new free schools would open that month.[27]

Wave 3: The DfE received 234 applications for the third wave of free schools,[28] of which 102 were approved to progress to the pre-opening stage.[29][30] The schools were due to open in September 2013.

Wave 4: Free schools wishing to open in September 2014 submitted proposals to the DfE in January 2013.[31] In May 2013 it was announced that 102 schools had been approved.[32]

Waves 5,6,7: In March 2013, the Department for Education announced the application schedule for groups wishing to open free schools in 2015 and beyond.[33] The Wave 5 pre-approvals were announced in January 2014, with 11 new schools being approved.[34] Five months later another 38 were pre-approved for Wave 6,[35] and in September of the same year, a further 35 schools were pre-approved for Wave 7.[36]

Wave 8: In January 2014,the Department for Education confirmed that there would be an eighth free school wave, with applications being accepted in the Autumn of 2014.[37] The outcome was announced in March 2015, when it was confirmed that 49 applications had been pre-approved.[14]

Wave 9: In July 2014, a further funding round was announced for the period immediately following the General Election, with proposals being invited for submission from 8 May 2015.[38] The Conservative Party manifesto for that election included a proposal for at least 500 further Free Schools.[39] On September 2nd 2015, it was announced that 18 applications had been successful in reaching Wave 9's pre-approval stage.[40]

Wave 10 and beyond: In July 2015, the recently elected Conservative Government invited a tenth wave of free school applications to be submitted in October the same year. They also said that there would be further waves with closing dates in March and September each year for the rest of the Parliament.[41]

Similar models in other countries

The free school concept is based on similar schools found in Sweden,[42] Chile,[43] New Zealand (an overlap between designated special character schools and partnership schools),[44] Canada,[45] and the United States.[46] In both the US and Canada they are known as charter schools.

Qualification of teachers

Unlike local authority maintained schools in England, but in common with other types of academy and with independent schools, free schools are allowed to employ teachers without Qualified Teacher Status (QTS). The Coalition government said this freedom enables "innovation, diversity and flexibility"[47] and "the dynamism that characterises the best independent schools".[48] The Labour Party have expressed their opposition to this and said that if elected they would require teachers in academies and free schools be "properly qualified".[49]


The centre-right think tank Policy Exchange showed in 2015 that free schools affect the performance of the pupils in surrounding schools. They discovered that the results in the low-performing schools located in the vicinity of a free school out-perform similar schools that do not have a free school next door. Moreover free schools are eight times more likely to be in England’s most deprived areas than the least deprived.[50]


When the free school policy was first announced, some commentators offered advice to potential proposers,[51] while others expressed scepticism that the concept could be made to work at all.[52] Supporters of free schools, such as the Conservative Party, claimed that they would "create more local competition and drive-up standards".[53] They also felt they would 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.[54] However, critics argued that the policy would benefit only middle-class parents with the time to set up free schools and that they would divert money away from existing schools.[9] Supporters of free schools said that they would benefit children from all backgrounds.[55] Some people were concerned that free schools are not obliged to cap their headteachers' pay.[56]

A review of available research on the Swedish model that partially inspired the policy was published in a paper by Rebecca Allen.[57] It concluded, "The econometric evidence on the effect of the reforms suggests that, so far, Swedish pupils do not appear to be harmed by the competition from private schools, but the new schools have not yet transformed educational attainment in Sweden."[58] Peter Wilby, writing in The Guardian, predicted that free schools would be run by private companies rather than parents, teachers or voluntary groups.[59] The New Schools Network was subsequently set up to help groups develop the skills needed to set up free schools.[60][61] Paul Carter, a Conservative councillor, pointed out that under the funding arrangements in place at the time, "the more academies and Free Schools you operate, under the current academy funding arrangements, the less [money] maintained schools would get."[62] Subsequently the Department for Education changed the funding arrangements for all maintained schools so that "schools in similar circumstances and with similar intakes receive similar levels of funding", whatever type of school they are.[63]

A warning by the National Union of Teachers (NUT) that the policy would "fuel social segregation and undermine local democracy was reported in "The Daily Telegraph.[53] The NUT also said that free schools were neither wanted nor needed, based on a survey of a thousand parents.[64] The Education Secretary accused Free School opponents of subjecting supporters to personal attacks and even death threats.[65] The Department for Education said that free schools were popular with parents. Figures released in 2013 showed that 90% of free schools were over-subscribed with an average of three pupils competing for each place.[66] Critics pointed out that 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.[67] As many of the 2012 free schools opened in temporary accommodation, it is not yet clear whether these opening subscription figures are indicative of the longer term popularity of the schools.[68]

Analysis by the British Humanist Association in 2013 demonstrated that the majority of free school applications were from religious groups.[69] The Catholic Education Service has said that it will not open free schools because their admissions rules would only let them reserve 50% of places for children from Catholic families, unlike Voluntary Aided schools which can select up to 100% of places using faith criteria.[70] Education Secretary Michael Gove said he had ruled out religious fundamentalist groups being able to set up free schools.[71]

In April 2014, following publication of a leaked document 'Future Academy System: Lord Nash Session', critics claimed that failing free schools were being given special fast-track attention by the government to limit potential embarrassment to Michael Gove, the Education Secretary at the time. The leaked document stated that the "political ramifications of any more free schools being judged inadequate are very high and speedy intervention is essential."[72]

Polling in April 2015 put public support for Conservative proposals to increase the number of free schools by at least 500 at 26%.[39] The 2015 Labour Party election manifesto proposed banning the creation of free schools in areas where there was a surplus of places.[73]

See also


  1. Harrison, Angela (2010-05-26). "What will make a school 'free'?". BBC News. Retrieved 2010-05-26.
  2. "School admissions code". UK Government. Retrieved 20 April 2014.
  3. Increasing the number of academies and free schools to create a better and more diverse school system, Detail.
  4. "Charities and charity trustees - an introduction for school governors". Charity Commission Website. Retrieved 15 May 2013.
  5. "Information for Free Schools opening in 2013 and beyond: Free School model funding agreement". Department for Education Website. Retrieved 15 May 2013.
  6. "Free Schools model funding agreement". Department for Education Website. Retrieved 21 May 2013.
  7. "Governance Models and Challenges for Free School Chains" (PDF). New Schools Network Website. Retrieved 21 May 2013.
  8. Gillie, Christine. "Free schools" (PDF). House of Commons Standard Note. Social Policy Section. Retrieved 15 May 2013.
  9. 1 2 3 Q&A: Academies and free schools, BBC News, 22 July 2010
  10. 1 2 "Setting up a Free School". GOV.UK Quick Answer. Retrieved 23 April 2013.
  11. "Free Schools FAQs - funding". Department for Education Website. Retrieved 15 May 2013.
  12. 1 2 "The free school presumption" (PDF). Department for Education. Retrieved 16 August 2015.
  13. "Education Terms: Free Schools". DfE Website. Department for Education. Retrieved 3 May 2014.
  14. 1 2 "Prime Minister announces landmark wave of free schools". Department for Education. Retrieved 9 March 2015.
  15. Increasing the number of academies and free schools to create a better and more diverse school system Policy.
  16. "Establishing a new school advice for LAs and proposers". Department for Education Website. Retrieved 13 April 2013.
  17. "Schedule 11: Establishment of new schools". Education Act 2011. Retrieved 13 April 2013.
  18. "Types of academy". SSAT Website. Specialist Schools and Academies Trust. Retrieved 3 May 2014.
  19. 1 2 "Types of school". Department for Education. Retrieved 4 May 2014.
  20. "UTC Colleges Overview". UTC Colleges. Baker Dearing Educational Trust. Retrieved 16 July 2015.
  21. "Free schools: successful applications and open schools - 2014". Department for Education. Retrieved 3 June 2014.
  22. "Name, Local Authority, Previous school name, and Faith designation of applications to open a Free School - waves 1 and 2". Department for Education website. Retrieved 14 April 2013.
  24. Harrison, Angela (28 August 2011). "Free schools: 24 set to open in September". BBC News. Retrieved 13 April 2013.
  25. "The free schools set to open in 2011". BBC News website. 1 September 2011. Retrieved 15 April 2013.
  26. "First 16 'free schools' details set out". BBC News Online. 6 September 2010.
  27. "Free schools: 55 to open this month". Department for Education Press Release. Retrieved 13 April 2013.
  28. "Wave 3 Free School applications - Free Schools proposing to open in 2013 and beyond" (PDF). DfE Website. Retrieved 15 April 2013.
  29. "100 more free schools approved for England". BBC News Website. 13 July 2012. Retrieved 15 April 2013.
  30. "Free Schools: opening in 2013 and beyond". DfE Website. Retrieved 15 April 2013.
  31. "Free Schools in 2014: How to apply" (PDF). DfE Website. Department for Education. Retrieved 15 April 2013.
  32. "More than 100 free schools applications approved". Department for Education. Retrieved 11 May 2014.
  33. "Applications for Free Schools opening in 2015 and beyond". DfE Website. Department for Education. Retrieved 15 April 2013.
  34. "Successful free school proposals announced". Department for Education. Retrieved 24 January 2014.
  35. "New schools bring total number of free school places to 175,000". Department for Education. Retrieved 20 June 2014.
  36. "35 new free schools providing more than 22,000 places announced". Retrieved 10 November 2014.
  37. "Opening a free school". Department for Education. Retrieved 22 April 2014.
  38. Ross, Tim (6 Jul 2014). "Michael Gove pledges more free schools if Conservatives win election". Telegraph. Retrieved 19 July 2014.
  39. 1 2 Wells, Anthony (17 April 2015). "Three weeks to go". UK Polling Report. Retrieved 23 April 2015. External link in |website= (help)
  40. Coughlan, Sean (2 September 2015). "Cameron launches wave of free schools". BBC. Retrieved 3 September 2015.
  41. "Free school applications: updated guidance". Department for Education. Retrieved 3 September 2015.
  42. "Free Schools in Sweden". New Schools Network Website. Retrieved 23 April 2013.
  43. "Schools should be run in the public interest". Govtoday Website. Retrieved 23 April 2013.
  44. "Partnership Schools Working Group". New Zealand Government Website. Retrieved 23 April 2013.
  45. "Charter Schools". The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved 23 April 2013.
  46. "National Charter School Resource Center". National Charter School Resource Centre website. Retrieved 23 April 2013.
  47. Hansard: 15 Nov 2010 — Column 623
  48. Hansard: 9 Sep 2013 — Column 663
  49. Garner, Richard (15 January 2014). "Labour pledge to stop state schools employing unqualified teachers". The Independent. Retrieved 6 September 2014.
  50. Why 500 new free schools are good news for England
  51. Tuck, Vicky (2010-04-26). "Want to open a Tory 'free school'? Take a leaf out of the Victorians' book". London: Telegraph. Retrieved 2010-05-26.
  52. Tory free schools: who’s going to pay for them?, The First Post, 26 May 2010
  53. 1 2 Paton, Graeme (2010-03-23). "Teachers attack Tory 'free school' plans". London: Telegraph. Retrieved 2010-05-26.
  54. Thorpe-Apps, Andrew. "Why Free Schools are the Future". The Backbencher website. Retrieved 14 April 2013.
  55. Young, Toby (15 June 2011). "Left unleashes furious assault on free schools in attempt to force another U-turn". The Telegraph. Retrieved 13 April 2013.
  56. Anger as Michael Gove refuses to set a cap on pay for academy headteachers, Daily Mail, 27 May 2010
  57. "Doubts cast over Swedish-style free schools". BBC News Online. 22 June 2010.
  58. Allen, Rebecca (Summer 2010). "Replicating Swedish 'free school' reforms in England" (PDF). Research in Public Policy.
  59. Peter Wilby (2010-05-25). "Private companies will run 'free schools'". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 2010-05-26.
  60. "Set up a School". New Schools Network website. Retrieved 14 April 2013.
  61. Harrison, Angela (18 June 2010). "Teachers are half of free school inquiries". BBC News. Retrieved 14 April 2013.
  62. Francis Gilbert (2010-04-27). "Tory free schools will spread inequality". Comment is free. London: Guardian. Retrieved 2010-05-26.
  63. "School funding reform: Arrangements for 2013 - 14" (PDF). Department for Education website. Retrieved 14 April 2013.
  64. Harrison, Angela (3 January 2011). "Free schools 'not wanted' say teachers". BBC News Online.
  65. Paton, Graeme (19 February 2013). "Michael Gove: free school applicants 'subjected to death threats'". The Telegraph. Retrieved 19 February 2013.
  66. Paton, Graeme. "Nine-in-10 of the Coalition's free schools 'oversubscribed'". The Telegraph.
  67. Mansell, Warwick. "More than half of new free schools opened with spare places, figures show". The Guardian.
  68. Davis, Anna (29 August 2012). "Free schools still homeless only weeks before opening by shortage of buildings". Evening Standard. Retrieved 24 January 2014.
  69. "Majority of identifiable Free School proposals from 2011-13 were religious". British Humanist Association website. Retrieved 14 April 2013.
  70. Sutcliffe, Jeremy (26 Oct 2013). "Free but fettered". The Tablet. Retrieved 22 April 2014.
  71. Marley, David (27 May 2011). "Gove banishes creationist groups from free schools". Times Educational Supplement. Retrieved 23 April 2013.
  72. Daniel Boffey; Warwick Mansell (5 April 2014). "Michael Gove's bid to limit fallout from failing free schools – revealed". The Observer. Retrieved 6 April 2014.
  73. Holehouse, Matthew (13 Apr 2015). "Labour manifesto 2015: the key policies and what they mean for you". The Telegraph. Retrieved 23 April 2015.
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