What is a free school?

Children at a free school
How do free schools differ from standard primary schools? How do they operate and what do they teach? If you’re thinking of sending your child to a free school, or just want to know more about them, here’s a brief parents' guide.

What are free schools?

Free schools are a new kind of school that groups of people, for example parents, teachers, charities or faith groups, can apply to set up in their area. Although they’re state schools funded directly by government, they’re not controlled by local authorities as maintained schools are.

When were free schools introduced?

The coalition government launched free schools when it came to power in 2010. By September 2013, 174 (primary and secondary) free schools had officially opened.

Free schools are often all-through schools, combining primary and secondary education in one establishment. 

How are free schools different from ordinary primary schools?

Free schools have much more freedom to make their own decisions on issues like:

  • What to teach
  • How long to make the school days, terms and school year
  • Who to employ as teaching staff
  • How much to pay teachers

Free schools don't teach the national curriculum. According to the Department for Education, one of the freedoms free schools enjoy is over what they teach, ‘providing it is a balanced and broadly based curriculum’, but to receive funding they must teach English, maths and science and ‘make provision for the teaching of religious education’. Free schools have regular Ofsted inspections.

What about admissions?

When it comes to admissions, free schools have to follow the School Admissions Code, just like other schools. This means they have to make sure the school is open to anyone.

If you’re involved with founding a free school, your children are guaranteed places at that school. Plus, priority is given to children with statements of a special educational need, looked-after children and children who’ve been adopted. Faith free schools can reserve half their places for children of that faith.

Free schools: pros and cons

The positives...

  • Free schools mean that parents and teachers can get together to create a new school in their area if they feel it needs it. Supporters of free schools feel that this newly-created competition will drive up overall standards.
  • Some free schools have a specialism, for example music, sport or technology, and can choose to put far more focus on that chosen subject. This might suit children who have particular talents or passions they want to follow.
  • Free schools can be housed in all sorts of buildings that are no longer being used, for example schools, shops, offices, libraries or churches. This can be a great way to put forgotten spaces back to active, positive use.

The pitfalls...

  • There’s no need for teaching staff employed by free schools to have qualified teacher status (QTS), which means technically children could end up being taught by untrained, unqualified people. Plus, free schools can pay staff whatever they like.
  • Some people are concerned that faith schools will be allowed to teach with a fundamentalist slant. The Department of Education has put certain stipulations in place, for example banning creationism being taught as a valid scientific theory.
  • There’s a worry that free schools could eventually cause existing state-maintained schools to close. This is because as the brightest pupils are drawn to newly-launched schools, those original places they might have gone to study will be drained of vital funding.

Interested in setting up a free school in your area? More information is available from the New Schools Network, a charity which provides advice and guidance on how to set up successful new state schools.