Free Schools. Are they as good as Charter Schools?

Free Schools are a coalition government initiative based in some part on the American Charter School model. There were 24 Free Schools that opened in September 2011, and 55 that opened in September 2012. The aim is to open 103 more Free Schools in September 2013.
Free Schools can be primary and secondary.Free Schools can be set up by charities, religious organisations, parents, teachers, if there is proven local demand. This site has a section on Free Schools.

  • A recent study from the Stanford Centre for Education Outcomes  reveals that poor students, especially those from ethnic minorities achieve particularly well in American Charter Schools.
  • However, there are some important differences between the charter model, and the free school model. There have been criticisms about the lack of transparency regarding who is opening the free schools, why some proposals for free schools were accepted, and why some were rejected, and whether the local community was properly consulted.
  • A Free School in England is set up completely independently of the local authority, where Charter Schools in America are set up in consultation with the local school district. There has been criticism that Free Schools in this country are opening without enough pupils to fill them, and they are taking away pupils from other good schools. There has been criticism that in this country, there is no system for closing failing schools, and opening Free Schools, like there is with the Charter School model.

How does this affect your choice of school?

  • Free Schools are not automatically going to be better for your child than other schools, or existing neighbouring schools. There is, as yet, no evidence that they are intrinsically better than non-Free Schools.
  • Free Schools are officially Academies, and therefore have many similarities; they do not have to follow the National Curriculum, they operate independently of the local authority, they can set their own terms and conditions for staff.  When choosing a school, it is therefore useful to think of Academies in a similar way as Free Schools.
  • At the time of writing, not all Free Schools due to open in September 2013 are fully subscribed. This is not in itself a problem. It might be the case that your child gets the advantage of small classes and specialist support in the early days of the school being set up.  It is, however, a problem, if the school does not prove to be popular long term, and continues to be under-subscribed. In this case, the school could begin to follow a downward trend.
  • If you are considering sending your child to a non-Free School, it is worth finding out if there are any Free Schools opening in the vicinity that would be competing for intake with the school you are considering. Some good schools are losing applications because of competition from new neighbouring Free Schools. It is not necessarily ideal to be sending your child to a school with a falling roll.
  • The locations of Free Schools are not planned in the same way as the location of schools connected to the local authority.  It therefore could be the case that a Free School is opening where there are not enough pupils to go round. This means that when you are considering the right school for your child, you now need to consider what the neighbouring schools are as well. It is worth finding out whether the neighbouring schools are under- or over- subscribed, and whether the school you are considering is under or over-subscribed. See this site’s section on over-subscription.


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