Free schools are new independent state-funded schools. They provide a way for groups of parents, teachers, charities, existing schools or other organisations to respond to a need for a new school in their community – whether for extra places, to raise standards or offer choice.
Setting up a new school is a challenging and rigorous process. Applicant groups have to demonstrate to the Department for Education that they have excellent educational expertise and a strong team that is capable of responsibly governing a school. They also have to prove that there is demand for the school in their community and show that they have developed a detailed education plan that will meet the needs of their students.
Once established, free schools are legally Academies so are funded by central government and have a range of freedoms:
- They can extend the school day or year: most use this freedom to add more time for learning or extra-curricular activity.
- They have to offer a broad and balanced curriculum, but this does not have to be the National Curriculum: some schools use this freedom to teach in an innovative way, whether that is focusing on STEM subjects or taking on a different approach to learning, such as outdoor expeditionary lessons.
- They have more flexibility in the way they employ their staff: some choose to offer teachers performance related pay to keep and reward their best staff while others choose to bring in outside expertise by employing people without traditional teaching qualifications.
- They decide how they spend their full budget: they receive all of their funding direct from central government, which means they have complete independence over how it is spent
- They have independent governance: free schools are run by an Academy Trust, and are independent of Local Authority oversight.
Like all state schools, free schools are free to attend and open to all children. They have been opened all over England by parents, teachers, existing outstanding schools, community groups and charities. They can be primary, secondary, all-through or 16-19, and can open specifically for children with special educational needs or those who struggle in mainstream schools (alternative provision).