Shortly after the coalition government’s election to power in May 2010, they announced plans to introduce greater freedoms into the educational system for headmasters, teachers, parents and even businesses to use their expertise to improve the range of educational opportunities available to our children. With the passing of the Academies Act in July 2010 these plans became a reality and in the autumn of 2011 the first of the coalition’s new academies came into full operation. So it is perhaps a good time to take a brief look at what these new schools are.
The core features of an academy that define it as such are that it is a) publicly funded, b) free entry and c) independent.
The schools will continue to be publicly funded by central government to the same level per child as traditional state schools, but via the Department for Education and its Young People’s Learning Agency rather than local authorities. This means that they are still answerable to central government, however, that aside they have a high degree of autonomy as they sit outside of local authority control and do not need to follow the national curriculum. Academies can therefore decide not only how and what they teach but also when their term times are, what their operating times are, how much they pay staff and how the school is structured. These freedoms are essentially characteristic of traditional fee paying independent schools but the public funding removes the barriers to the features, providing free entry to all. Despite the autonomy they are still however subject to Ofsted inspections as a consequence of being publicity financed.
Academy status can and has been sought at any level of the school system from primary to secondary with some schools providing a unified approach right though these levels, whilst others fit into the existing frameworks in their areas with feeder and reciprocal schools much as a traditional state school.
A free school comes under the academy umbrella, however, rather than describing an existing school which converts into an academy, the term free schools is applied to new schools which are set up by any interested party, whether it be teachers, parents, charities or businesses, in a given area to specifically meet a particular demand for the school children in that area.
Again free schools are publicly funded by central government yet sit outside of local authority and therefore have the freedom to operate outside of the national curriculum. However, they do differ from academies in that they cannot, at any stage, be selective in their intake and they are allowed to employ individuals who do not posses recognised teaching qualifications to carry out their teaching.
Making the Switch
Any school can apply to convert to be an academy but only schools rated as at least ‘Good with elements of Outstanding’ by Ofsted can do so independently. Other schools looking to use the conversion to improve their fortunes will need to enter into a partnership with a high achieving school when applying so that they can benefit from their advice during the conversion.
To become a free school, any interested parties will need to apply to the Department of Education through their New Schools Network who will work with them throughout the process.
The introduction of academies and free schools has provided a whole new raft of opportunities and options to those in the education system and who have ideas outside of the existing constraints of that system so no doubt many schools will be interested in finding out more about how to become an academy.