House of Commons Library

FAQs: Academies and free schools

Published Monday, February 25, 2019

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 >>

What is an academy?

Academies and free schools are state-funded, non-fee-paying schools in England, independent of local authorities. Academies and free schools operate in accordance with their funding agreements with the Secretary of State for Education. Maintained schools, on the other hand, have varying degrees of council involvement. 

Although academies, free schools and maintained schools share many similarities, there are some important differences in the rules and legislation that apply to different types of school.

How do free schools differ from academies?

Free schools are entirely new state schools, offering additional state-funded school places, whereas most academies were previously maintained schools that have converted (or become sponsored academies). Free schools operate in law as academies.

What is a multi-academy trust or MAT? How can I find information on a MAT?

Multi-academy trusts, or MATs, usually run more than one academy. MATs themselves are single legal entities, and will have 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, having between 1 and 10 schools.

The Department for Education publishes performance data for MATs.

Will all maintained schools have to convert to academy status?

In March 2016, the then Government said it would pass legislation to require all remaining maintained schools to convert to academy status by 2022 at the latest. The plan attracted criticism, and in October 2016, Education Secretary Justine Greening said that the Government would not bring forward further legislation this Parliamentary session. The Government's ambition remained that "all schools should benefit from the freedom and autonomy that academy status brings", but the emphasis would be on supporting schools toward voluntary conversion and building system capacity.

How do parents get places for their children at an academy?

Academies can decide for themselves how they will prioritise applicants, but they have to comply with national admission rules in doing so. Regardless of a state school’s legal status, parents or carers usually apply to their home local authority for school places if they are applying for entry at the usual times (e.g. entry to reception or secondary school), although there are some exceptions.

Parents and carers whose application for a place at an academy is refused have the right to appeal.

How are academies held accountable?

The local authority has a limited role in overseeing academies. Instead, their operation is overseen by:

  • The Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA – a Department for Education executive agency);
  • Schools’ inspectorate, Ofsted;
  • Regional Schools Commissioners (DfE appointees who each cover one of eight regions in England).

Academies must comply with the current version of the ESFA’s Academies Financial Handbook.

Who owns academy land and buildings? Can property or land be sold off?

Academies can have various tenure types. Many hold their sites on long leases from the local authority, for a nominal charge.

There are controls on the disposal of publicly-funded academy (and maintained school) land. The Secretary of State’s permission is required for the disposal of such land or school land that was originally private but which has been enhanced at public expense.

Curriculum at academies

Academies aren’t required to follow the national curriculum although some do at least in part. The curriculum requirements for a particular academy can be found in the academy’s funding agreement.

What are the rules about staff employment in academies and free schools?

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.

Are academies a good thing for school standards?

The arguments for and against academies and free schools, and information on the Government’s wider schools’ policies are covered in a separate Library briefing paper:

This research briefing covers England only. There are no academies or free schools in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.


Commons Briefing papers SN07059

Authors: Nerys Roberts; Shadi Danechi

Topic: Schools

Share this page

Stay up to date

  • Subscribe to RSS feed Subscribe to Email alerts Commons Briefing papers

House of Commons Library

The House of Commons Library provides research, analysis and information services for MPs and their staff.