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Free Schools

Why does NASUWT oppose free schools?

The NASUWT believes that the overriding rationale for any change to education policy should be to raise standards, tackle disadvantage and inequality and narrow the achievement gap. Any changes should also safeguard and enhance the values and ethos of state education. 

There is strong evidence from the UK, the USA, Sweden and elsewhere that bringing other providers in to run schools creates additional financial pressures across the whole system, increases inefficiency (especially as a result of the potential increase in numbers of surplus places) and leads to profiteering.

There is no requirement on proposers of free schools to conduct a public consultation when there is an intention to establish a free school. Local communities, local authorities and parents, are therefore, disenfranchised and their involvement is subject to the ‘grace and favour’ of the proposer.

Joint-Declaration-LogoThe promotion of social cohesion is at the heart of public service provision. Free schools are not premised on the basis of making a meaningful contribution to the promotion of social cohesion. They are deliberately established to stand in isolation from the local authority family of schools. There is the real potential for them to lead to parents seeking segregated schools, as has happened abroad. The question is what happens when the parents who set up the free school lose interest? This is likely to happen when their children leave the school.

The idea that in the 21st century disused office blocks or derelict buildings are fit for purpose to provide the facilities children and young people need to learn should cause deep concern, particularly when planning and other regulations are to be amended or removed to facilitate this.

Planning laws are designed to ensure that the site of a building is fit for purpose in terms of its location, accessibility and safety. These laws give rights to local residents in terms of their input into the proposed location.

Many disused or derelict buildings are in that position because they were not deemed fit for purpose by the previous owners. In many cases this was because the buildings required extensive expenditure to strip out inappropriate and dangerous material such as asbestos or because adaption for access for people with disabilities was not feasible or cost effective.

Terms and conditions of teachers and other staff in free schools are likely to be less favourable because the school is established from scratch and will set its own contracts. There will be no existing staff on the national pay and conditions of service framework or, with regard to support staff, on local government terms and conditions.

The national pay and conditions framework is a fundamental part of the universal entitlement for children and young people in the state system to have teachers paid in a way that recognises and rewards them as highly skilled professionals and who have access to working conditions that enable them to work effectively, focusing on their core responsibilities of teaching and learning, to deliver the highest standards of education. Existing teachers who apply to work in a free school will not be protected under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations (TUPE) and will be required to accept the contract set by the proposer.

Economically, the creation of free schools and indeed academies is a flawed strategy. Academies and free schools will be more costly to the taxpayer as the administrative, financial and specialist central services currently provided by the local authority will need to be replicated by each new academy and free school to ensure effective service delivery.

Free schools can only be supported financially on the basis of taking money from the funding currently earmarked for other schools and through slashing programmes like Building Schools for the Future (BSF) which was designed to refurbish or replace existing dilapidated school buildings.

Free schools set up to avoid school closures or amalgamations by local authorities to tackle falling rolls and surplus places will place enormous additional cost on the local authority and all other schools. Free schools will make it impossible for local authorities to plan provision strategically. The reality is that the over-supply of school places, which is likely to arise as a result of the establishment of free schools, could force the closure of, or job loss in, other neighbouring schools.

Claims that free schools and academies provide more financial freedom from local authorities and ensure that all the money allocated for pupils reaches the pupils is grossly misleading. All schools already have autonomy over their spending, regardless of whether they are community, foundation or academy schools.

Well over 90% of the funding allocated for schools goes directly to them. It is not held by the local authority. Most local authorities retain centrally 5% or less. A small number have 8% or 9%. This funding is retained by the local authority to provide essential services, including specialist support for all schools in an area, particularly with regard to special educational needs (SEN) provision.

The NASUWT believes that all state-funded schools should be directly linked to local authorities to enable effective local planning for the provision of high quality comprehensive educational services, to secure the economies of scale to be realised in procurement and to monitor standards of provision.

Free schools are premised on the notion of complete autonomy for schools. The level of autonomy that already exists in some schools in the UK is already a cause for concern and has led for example to the failure to comply with statutory provisions and stockpiling of public money in school balances.

Machin and Vernoit, from London School of Economics (LSE), have stated that they are seriously concerned that the proposed extension of the academies and free schools programme ‘will exacerbate already existing educational inequalities; thus strongly suggesting that although the Government may indicate that they are introducing this programme to reduce disadvantage, the reality is that it is wholly an ideological move.


Free Schools - Definition in Statute

The provision for free schools was introduced in the Academies Act 2010. Section 9 of the Act refers to additional schools, i.e schools that do not replace a maintained, foundation, trust, voluntary aided, or voluntary controlled school. An academy would always replace one of these types of school. These additional schools are the so-called free schools.

The Department for Education (DfE) says that free schools may be set up by a wide range of proposers – including charities, universities, businesses, educational groups, teachers and groups of parents – in response to parental demand, to improve choice and drive up standards for all young people, regardless of their background. The DfE says that free schools will provide an inclusive education to young people of all abilities, from all backgrounds, and will be clearly accountable for the outcomes they deliver.

The schools will have placed upon them the same legal requirements as academies and have the same freedoms and flexibilities. The freedoms include:

  • the ability to set their own pay and conditions for all staff from the outset;
  • greater control of their budget;
  • freedom from following the National Curriculum;
  • freedom to change the length of terms and school days;
  • freedom from local authority control.

The DfE asserts that, like academies, free schools will be funded on a comparable basis to other state-funded schools and will not be profit making.

Background and international comparisons

The free school model is based on a similar scheme in Sweden.

Whilst the Coalition Government in the UK is continuing to promote the Swedish model, serious concerns are being raised in Sweden about its educational effectiveness.

Per Thulberg, Director General of the Swedish National Agency for Education, Skolverket, has said: “This competition between schools that was one of the reasons for introducing the new [free] schools has not led to better results.”

In instances in Sweden where a free school had improved its results, it is now recognised that this is as a result of the selection of pupils with ‘better backgrounds’ than those who attended the institutions the free schools had replaced.

A report by the Swedish National Agency for Education in 2004 found that, far from improving the life chances of the poorest in society, free schools practice social segregation.

In promoting the free and academy school models, the Coalition Government often also references the Charter Schools in the USA.

The Charter School Movement has faced serious criticisms by influential thinkers and academics on the grounds that:

  • the results are not any better than other state schools;
  • they are not effective for low-performing students;
  • they have very poor rates of completion, particularly for students from the poorest communities;
  • they are unstable institutions – of the 5,250 Charter Schools opened in the USA up to August 2010, one in eight had already closed;
  • teachers face greater workloads and are dissatisfied with their working conditions;
  • teacher turnover is much higher than in other schools;
  • experienced teachers are paid less.

The facts about free schools

Free schools are state-funded independent schools.

They exercise the same freedoms as academies.

In free schools there is no automatic recognition of trade unions.

They are inspected by Ofsted and will be bound by the Admissions Code and be part of the local admissions arrangements. The DfE says it sets clear expectations around the results and outcomes free schools are expected to achieve and they will be held accountable against those expectations.

There are no restrictions on who can open a free school and there is no statutory requirement to consult the local authority, parents or the local community. It is for the proposer to consult who they consider appropriate. It is only necessary for the Secretary of State to take into account what the impact of establishing the additional school would be likely to be on maintained schools, academies and institutions within the further education sector in the area in which the free school is, or is proposed to be.

The Coalition Government’s stated aim is to make it easier for groups of parents, charities, universities, businesses, educational groups, teachers and others to set up their own free school. Encouragement was given in the Conservative Election Manifesto, in particular to parents where local authorities were seeking to reorganise school provision.

There are a number of private sector organisations looking to offer their services to parents and teachers to run the free schools for profit.

Premises for free schools

Planning laws and other regulations have been amended to enable buildings such as derelict offices, disused hospitals and vacant shops to be converted into schools.

The DfE says that many of those who want to set up free schools will be able to find premises to rent.

For those projects that may require an upfront capital outlay, the DfE says that they will work with the proposer to ensure that there is a strong value-for-money case to support the investment.

The new schools network

The Coalition Government commissioned the New Schools Network to support persons wishing to set up a free school. The Network’s stated aim is to promote the expansion of state-funded independent schools.

Any group interested in establishing a new free school can contact the New Schools Network to discuss their ideas before making a proposal to the Secretary of State.

The New Schools Network is an organisation dedicated to increasing the number of independent schools within the state sector. It believes that successive Governments have failed to make opportunity equal in the country’s schools.

The first Director of the New Schools Network, Rachel Wolf, was an education adviser to the Conservative Party and has also worked for Boris Johnson, the Conservative Mayor of London.

Among the trustees of the New Schools Network are Theodore Agnew of the right-wing think-tank Policy Exchange, Amanda Spielman of ARK Schools and Barbara Harrison, the former Chief Executive of the Girls’ Day School Trust.


The DfE claims that free schools are funded on a comparable basis to other state-funded schools. It says that the funding model is intended to be as simple as possible, based mainly on a per-pupil funding level, with a pupil premium for disadvantaged pupils.

For all proposals for capital funding, the DfE expects proposers to show how their planned approach:

  • supports the education aims of the school;
  • meets the policy aim of increasing parental choice;
  • provides the flexibility, where necessary, for the school to grow and develop over time;
  • provides value for money, including in relation to local benchmarks for rental and/or refurbishment costs.

The public's view of free schools

There is no evidence of public clamour for free schools or for the involvement of more providers of schools in the state sector. Research conducted by Ipsos MORI in 2010 found that parents and the public rate highly the quality of state schools and believe that such provision should be directly linked to local authorities.

According to the Ipsos MORI survey findings, 95% of the public are opposed to schools being run by private companies, voluntary organisations, charities and universities; 96% of the public were not supportive of the concept of parent-led (free) schools. In both of these areas, the public response is underpinned by a desire for local democratically accountable schools.

Stages in setting up a free school

Stage 1: Preparation

Proposers interested in setting up a free school are encouraged to contact the New Schools Network to discuss their ideas.

The New Schools Network is acting as the first point of contact for the majority of groups interested in establishing a free school. It receives funding from the DfE and provides information and advice on setting up a free school and helps groups through the process.

Stage 2: Proposal

After proposers have worked up their ideas, they will need to complete a form that asks them to set out:

  • the aims and objectives of the new school;
  • the main people and organisations involved in the project;
  • evidence of parental demand (e.g. a petition);
  • possible premises being considered.

The Secretary of State will make a judgement on the potential of the project, based on criteria relating to educational aims and objectives, evidence of demand, potential premises and suitability of provider, to decide whether the proposed free school project should move into the next stage.

Stage 3: Full business case and plan

Proposers will prepare a detailed business case and plan for the new school.

This will need to include:

  • a detailed statement of educational aims and curriculum;
  • final details of the key people and organisations that will be involved in the running of the school;
  • full evidence that there is demand for the school and that it will be financially viable over a minimum five-year period;
  • evidence that the school will meet all required standards (including the Independent School Standards and the Admissions Code);
  • a commitment to conduct national tests where appropriate;
  • details of proposed premises and a full business case for the public value of all start-up costs;
  • financial projections for operating the school on an ongoing basis.

The business case and plan is a substantial document and most proposers will require professional support to complete it to the required standard.

The Secretary of State will make an assessment of whether the project has met all the criteria to allow a new school to be set up and receive state funding based on the final business case and plan.

Stage 4: Pre-opening

Proposers will sign a funding agreement contract with the DfE to trigger the release of potential start-up funding. The school will need to set up new financial systems and contractual arrangements, completing registrations and ensuring that all Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) checks are carried out as necessary. The DfE offers support to the school to ensure that all legal documents are completed relating to governance, land transfer and company registration.

Length of time to set up a free school

The length of the process will vary depending on the level of preparation and expertise of the proposers wanting to set up the new school and also the complexity of the issues associated with their particular project. The first free schools are expected to open in September 2011.