A number of myths exist around free schools; here, we respond to some of the most common.
Are free schools being opened where they are not needed?
Free schools open where they are needed: 83% of approved free schools located in areas of recognised need. Most applicant groups are driven by issues they have seen in their community: there might be a shortage of places that a new school could alleviate; a lack of choice for parents and children; the need for a subject specialism or a new philosophy which they believe could make a difference in a deprived area. Whatever it may be, the rigorous and challenging free school application process means groups must provide evidence that there is a need for a new school.
Can free schools teach whatever they like?
Instead, free schools offer new options in education so parents and young people can find a school that is right for them. For instance, the London Academy of Excellence and Sir Isaac Newton Sixth Form have focused on academic subjects and helped more students get into top universities; King’s College London Maths School and Exeter Mathematics School have a particular focus on raising standing in maths and other STEM subjects; XP School in Doncaster has adopted the expeditionary learning module popular across the US, allowing students to learn through ongoing projects and expeditions; schools like East London Arts and Music School, the Rural Enterprise Academy in Staffordshire and the North Somerset Enterprise and Technology College focus on improving standard to prepare their students for apprenticeships and the world of work.
What 'freedoms' do free schools have? Can they do whatever they want?
Free schools are free of local authority control; this means they answer directly to the Department for Education and have some beneficial freedoms not found in other state schools – such as managing their own school day and term dates, offering a balanced and innovative curriculum alongside core subjects (English, mathematics and science), and being able to manage their own recruitment process to hire the best staff.
Some critics worry these freedoms mean schools are able to do whatever they like; regardless of their freedoms, all free schools must adhere to the Admissions Code, be not-for-profit and be inspected by Ofsted.
Are free schools full of ‘unqualified’ teachers?
Despite persistent myths to the contrary, the make-up of teachers in free schools is pretty similar to any other school. The vast majority have qualified teacher status (QTS) and free school leaders can even choose to make this official policy. Like all academies, they do have the freedom to hire people with alternative qualifications if they think they will be good teachers. These might include science specialists with a background in higher education or coaches from local sports clubs. This academy freedom does not extend to special free schools and academies where teaching staff must have QTS.
Who decides whether free schools can open or not?
Setting up a free school is not easy – but it is achievable. Any group that wants to propose a free school must show they have the expertise and ability and have their application approved by the Department for Education. The application process is rigorous; alongside a clear vision and coherence education plan, groups must also prove there is a need for their school and show that they have support from the local area.
The process normally takes around a year, with a further year spent in the pre-opening phase. Once open, free schools are closely regulated by the DfE both nationally and regionally and are inspected by Ofsted in the same way as any other school.
Do free schools replace existing schools in the area?
Free schools cannot select pupils, so their intake is representative of the area; this also means that the most academically able students are not all at one school. Free school applications have to prove there is a need for a new school, whether it is to offer more school places, provide a different choice for parents or offer a subject specialism.
Over 80 percent of free schools currently working with, or plan to work with, other local schools to improve standards in education.
Who makes sure a free school is a 'good school’?
Like all state schools, free schools are inspected by Ofsted - and are more likely to be judged as Outstanding. Free schools are created to raise standards and are held to the highest possible standards. In the rare cases where a free school has not offered the standard of education they promised, swift and decisive action has been taken, which is in contrast to the rest of the state sector where over 100 Local Authority schools have been in special measures for over a year.
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