School debating societies could learn an awful lot from the ongoing discussion about Free Schools. The exchange of views is getting quite heated. But what’s all the fuss about?
Some parents, teachers and probably even children have had enough of the status quo and are demanding greater choice and more decision-making responsibilities when it comes to education.
The concept of Free Schools may be almost indistinguishable from Academies but there is a fundamental difference.
Academies are existing schools that change their status to receive funding directly from central government but acquire independence from day-to-day local authority (LA) and government control.
Free schools are a fresh concept devised by the Coalition to allow new schools to be set up in the style of academies: state-funded and essentially non-selective; independent but accountable via Ofsted and national tests. They may be established by a wide range of proposers, including charities, universities, businesses, educational groups, teachers and groups of parents. Their purpose is to improve choice and raise standards though there is anxiety that some groups with a not-so-hidden agenda may set up free schools where the teaching is biased in some way. In theory the fact that they are accountable to Ofsted should prevent this.
Another potential problem is that they aren't newly built schools. They are often set up in empty schools or disused factories and so will not necessarily have laboratories, playgrounds or sports facilities and a lot of the teaching is done by IT software.
Because Free Schools are not controlled by the local authority, it means they have control over their own budget, can set their own pay and conditions for staff, they can change the length of school terms and the school day and they do not have to follow the National Curriculum.
Free Schools should be open to pupils of all abilities from the area. They won't be able to select pupils on the basis of their marks or academic ability. Free Schools will have to take part in their local area's coordinated admissions process. This means that parents will apply for places for their child in the same way as for any other local school.
Proposers of a Free School have to comply with strict suitability and vetting tests before they can set up a Free School. All proposals will be checked by the Secretary of State for Education, who will consider each proposal on its merits.
If you are interested in having a Free School in your area, advice is available from the New Schools Network, an independent charity. Visit: www.newschoolsnetwork.org
More information about how to set up a Free School is also available on the Department for Education website at: www.education.gov.uk