This briefing paper answers FAQs about academies and free schools in England. Topics covered include: academy conversion; school places; special educational needs provision; academy land disposal and sale; funding; and accountability.Jump to full report >>
Academies and free schools are state-funded, non-fee-paying schools in England, independent of local authorities. They operate in accordance with their funding agreements with the Secretary of State, and are independent of local authorities (LAs). Maintained schools, on the other hand, have varying degrees of council involvement and are directly funded by them.
Free schools are new state schools, whereas many academies are converter schools that were previously maintained by local authorities. Free schools operate in law as academies.
Although academies, free schools and maintained schools share many similarities, there are some important differences in terms of the rules and legislation that apply to them.
Multi-academy trusts, or MATs, usually run more than one academy. MATs themselves are single legal entities, with one set of trustees. Their member schools operate under a single governance structure. A handful of MATs are very large, with 40 or more schools; most MATs are much smaller than this, having between 1 and 10 schools. The Department for Education publishes performance data for MATs.
Mainstream academies can decide for themselves how they will prioritise applicants for school places, where they are oversubscribed (e.g., have more applicants than places available). They have to comply with national fair admission rules in doing this. Regardless of a state school’s legal status, parents usually apply to their home local authority for mainstream school places. Parents and carers whose application for a place at an academy is refused have the right of appeal.
Academies aren’t required to follow the national curriculum. Primary academies are, however, required to participate in the assessments aligned with the national curriculum – i.e., SATs.
From September 2020, all academies and free schools will be required by legislation to offer revised Relationships and Sex Education, and health education.
The operation of academies is overseen by: The Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA – a Department for Education executive agency); Schools’ inspectorate, Ofsted; and Regional Schools Commissioners (DfE appointees who each cover one of eight regions in England).
Academies can have various tenure types, but many hold their sites on long leases from the local authority, for a nominal charge.
There are controls on the disposal of academy (and maintained school) publicly-funded land. The Secretary of State’s permission is required for the disposal of publicly-funded school land or school land that was originally private but which has been enhanced at public expense.
Where an academy converts from maintained school status, transferring staff are protected by TUPE (Transfer of Undertakings and Protection of Employment) arrangements.
When hiring new staff, or in the case of entirely new academies and free schools, academy trusts can determine their own pay, terms and conditions for staff, providing they comply with employment law and any relevant terms in their funding agreements.
The arguments for and against academies, and information on the Government’s wider schools’ policies are covered in a separate historical Library briefing paper:
There are a relatively small number of free schools with pupils in the final year of primary (Key Stage 2) or compulsory education (Key Stage 4). As such, some caution is still needed when comparing their performance to other school groups.
Of free schools that have been inspected by Ofsted as at 31 March 2019:
Commons Briefing papers SN07059
Authors: Nerys Roberts; Shadi Danechi