Q&A;: Academies and free schools

Page last updated at 11:08 GMT, Wednesday, 26 May 2010 12:08 UK

The new coalition government is inviting all schools in England to become academies and encouraging parents to set up their own schools. The BBC News website explains what academies and free schools are.

What is an academy?

Academies are publicly-funded schools which operate outside of local authority control. They have more freedom than other schools in the state sector over issues such as teachers' pay and how the school is governed.

They also have greater freedom to digress from the national curriculum. Academies are established with government cash. They are often housed in new state-of the-art buildings and there are currently 203 of them in England.

What is a free school?

Free schools were Education Secretary Michael Gove's flagship policy in the run-up to the general election. The aim is to give parents' groups, charities, trusts and voluntary groups the chance to set up and operate schools.

The scheme is based on the system in Sweden, where non-profit and profit-making groups can set up schools - funded by the government - but free from its control.

What is the government's plan for these schools?

The new coalition government is inviting all schools in England - including primary and special schools for the first time - to take up academy status. It is extending this offer to parents' groups who want to set up their own schools, by encouraging them to apply for academy status.

The government is putting a new Academies Bill before Parliament, which will remove the current requirement for a group to consult with the local authority before setting up as an academy.

The bill would also allow primary and secondary schools, rated as outstanding by school inspectors, to be fast-tracked into free-standing academies by the autumn. It would make all new academies charities. By taking academy status, schools will receive their funding directly from central government and will have greater autonomy.

All new academies will have complete say over their curriculum as long as it is "broad and balanced". This same freedom was granted to academies set up before 2007. Academies set up after 2007 have to teach the national curriculum in English, maths and science and will have to renegotiate their funding agreements to enjoy complete freedom over their curriculum.

So is there a difference between free schools and academies?

Essentially no, because free schools will now be established as academies. By removing the requirement for groups to consult with the local authority before setting up a free school, parents' groups and other groups will not be hindered by the local council.

What happens to the schools left under local authority control?

They will stay as they are. Critics fear that if academy status becomes a symbol of success for high-performing schools in affluent areas, schools remaining under local authority control will somehow be regarded as second best.

Do these plans alter the face of academies?

The Academies Bill represents a sea change as it has the potential to remove many of the highest-performing state schools in England from the local authority system. The academy scheme developed by the previous government had been designed to tackle underachievement in deprived areas. Academies were one of the flagship policies of the former Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and were seen as a way to raise standards in less advantaged communities. Under the new proposals, academies will be top-performing schools, many located in affluent areas.

Are there critics of the Academies Bill?

Yes. Critics fear that by fast-tracking highly successful schools into academy status, the bill will benefit more privileged neighbourhoods. Former schools secretary Ed Balls says the move will lead to a two-tier education system, with the best schools able to "suck the best teachers and the extra money".

The NUT (National Union of Teachers) said the move could spell the end of state-provided education. The ATL (Association of Teachers and Lecturers) union has described the coalition's academy proposals as "irresponsible" and the NASUWT (National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers) said the scheme could "segregate and fragment communities". Before the election, the Liberal Democrats described the concept of free schools as a "shambles".

But the government says academies will not just "innovate in the interests of their own children", but will act as a spur to improvement in neighbouring schools.

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