Understanding Free Schools

Come September 2014 there will be nearly 300 free schools open across England which once full will provide around 150,000 new places. No small feat for a programme that began just over three years ago.
Drawing on the experience of new school programmes in Sweden and the US, free schools enable 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.

Unlike their Swedish and American counterparts however, they are not allowed to make a profit.
Set up to meet a variety of needs, there are three main types of free schools. The majority are mainstream (which includes primary, secondary or 16-19), but there are also Special free schools and those that offer Alternative Provision for students that have been excluded or are at risk of exclusion.
Like all state schools, they have to teach a broad and balanced curriculum with a focus on English, Maths and Science; they are however free to vary their curricula in order to specialise in certain subjects such as STEM, to provide a bilingual education or to use teaching methods from other countries.
They are also free to decide their own term dates and length of school day to give more time for learning and extracurricular activities as well as offering greater flexibility to working parents.
It is these freedoms that have attracted such a wide variety of groups to establish new free schools. Teachers have particularly seized the opportunity to set up a new school; 67 per cent of free schools have been started by groups led by teachers, existing successful schools, academy chains or existing providers.
The opportunity to create an innovative, alternative education for pupils has seen the likes of the National Autistic Society, Everton Football Club and Eton College decide to enter the state education sector in order to increase the number of children whose lives they improve.

From application to opening
Setting up a new school is a challenging process that requires a dedicated group of individuals with the right expertise as well as strong evidence that the free school is actually needed and wanted by that community. The support of local parents (or students in the case of 16-19 provision) is vital as they need to sign up to the group’s vision for a new school. They have to express not only their interest in a new school but their interest in that particular school and commit to making it their first choice if it was to open. Essentially supporting a school which, at that stage, exists only on paper.
It is also imperative to show an understanding of the needs of local children and how any new school will meet these needs, whether that’s a higher number of pupils with English as an Additional Language or a focus on preparing young people for the world of work.
Only after handing in their 100+ page document and going through a lengthy interview process with the Department for Education will a group find out if their bid has been successful. Then follows a rigorous pre-opening stage, in which the team must create a school and demonstrate their readiness to open. This means securing premises, teaching staff, etc. while holding a public consultation with the local community.
Quite rightly, the free school application process is a demanding one, even for existing ‘Outstanding’ schools and is designed to ensure that only the best and most capable applicant groups are selected to open new schools.

The funding structure: new academies
Any group or organisation hoping to open a free school is only permitted to use public money once they have been approved. During the pre-opening stage, prospective free schools receive a project development grant intended to cover aspects such as staff recruitment, marketing and project management support.  
Alongside this is the money invested by the Education Funding Agency which will secure a preferred site as well as covering core costs to support the school set-up. Some schools face the prospect of locating in temporary accommodation for their first years whilst their permanent site is refurbished, however whilst this may prove inconvenient, it hasn’t prevented them from delivering a high standard of education from day one.
A recent National Audit Office report found that new free schools have cost 45 per cent less than those set up under previous school building programmes. This is in part due to the creative manner in which free schools have converted existing sites to suit their needs; for example Heyford Park free school is located on a former RAF airbase in Oxfordshire and has even incorporated the base’s history into the curriculum, whilst Sir Isaac Newton Sixth Form has just completed its move into Norwich’s disused fire station.
Open free schools are funded in the same manner as Academy schools and are in fact legally classed as Academies. They are held account financially to the Department for Education through their funding agreement which also sets out the high standards of education expected of them as a new school. Once full, free schools receive exactly the same per-pupil funding as any state school.

The evidence of success so far
Free schools have undergone an unprecedented rate of growth since their introduction, especially compared to previous new school programmes, and are proving extremely popular as well as demonstrating early signs of strong performance.
Free schools are inspected by Ofsted quickly – in their second year of operation, some just four terms after they opened. It is early to make comparisons, not even 50 free school inspection reports have been published to date, however, when compared to all schools inspected during the same period, under the new, more rigorous Ofsted framework, free schools are performing well: 73 per cent have been judged as “outstanding” or “good”, compared with 63 per cent of other schools.
Just as important is their popularity with parents. A recent survey of free schools carried out by the Department for Education showed that free schools have attracted almost three applications for every place this September. This included schools such as King’s Leadership Academy, Warrington which received 275 applications for 120 places or Bristol Cathedral Primary School that had 201 for their 30 places. What makes their popularity all the more encouraging is that the vast majority have only been open for just one or two years, showing how in a short space of time free schools have already become the preferred choice for many parents.

Find out more
New Schools Network is an independent charity set up in 2009 to improve the quality of education – particularly for the most deprived – by increasing the number of independent, innovative schools within the state sector.
We work to support groups through the application process, all our support is free. Many of our resources are available to any group that is considering applying to run a Free School but we also have a more intensive programme of support that has a limited number of places.
We have provided some element of support to around 70 per cent of the currently open and approved Free Schools and our Development Programme is designed to ensure we give our most intensive help to groups that we believe have the highest potential to become outstanding schools, particularly where they will reach deprived communities. If you are interested in setting up a free school contact us to find out how we can help.

For more information