Q&A: Academies and free schools

The coalition government is inviting all schools in England to become academies and encouraging parents to set up their own schools, called free schools. The Academies Bill, which paves the way for these changes, is currently being debated in the House of Commons. The BBC News website examines key questions about academies and free schools.

What is an academy?

Academies are publicly funded schools which operate outside of local authority control. The government describes them as independent state-funded schools. Essentially, academies have more freedom than other state schools over their finances, the curriculum, and teachers' pay and conditions.

A key difference is that they are funded directly by central government, instead of receiving their funds via a local authority. In addition, they receive money which would previously have been held back by the local authority to provide extra services across all schools, such as help for children with special educational needs. This is estimated to range from 4 to 10% of the funds allocated to the school.

Academies do not have to follow the national curriculum. They can choose their own curriculum, as long as it is "broad and balanced".

Don't academies exist already?

Yes, there are more than 200 of them in England at the moment, all secondary schools. They were established by the Labour government, seen as a way of turning around the worst-performing schools and schools in disadvantaged areas.

Under Labour, academies had to have sponsors - who invested up to £2m in return for receiving state funding directly from central government. Sponsors included businesses, church groups, charitable trusts and private schools. New academies were usually established with state-of-the-art buildings and the philosophy that transforming children's environment would help them engage more with learning.

Academies set up before 2007 were able to set their own curriculum, but those which came afterwards had to teach the national curriculum in English, maths and science. Those academies will have to renegotiate their agreements with the government to to get the new academy freedoms over the curriculum.

What is the government's vision for academies?

The coalition wants all schools to have the chance to become academies, including primary and special schools, as part of an "education revolution".

In its Academies Bill, which will make the legal changes needed for this academies expansion, the government says becoming academies will "give schools the freedoms and flexibilities they need to continue to drive up standards".

Its says it aims to raise standards for all children, narrow the attainment gap between the most and least advantaged, and create a "world-beating system".

However, in contrast to Labour, the coalition is focusing first on the top end of schools. It wants to enable schools judged "outstanding" by Ofsted to convert into academies by September, although it then wants successful schools to mentor struggling ones.

Education Secretary Michael Gove sees academies as a way of cutting bureaucracy and giving more control to schools.

The changes could mean thousands of schools opting out of local authority control and a much-reduced role for local councils in education.

The Bill removes the need for local authorities to be consulted about the setting up of an academy.

How fast will academy numbers grow?

The Academies Bill is due to be passed by the Commons before MPs break for the summer. This will mean that some schools - those judged outstanding by Ofsted - can convert in September, if they are able to overcome the necessary legal hurdles in time.

The government has not yet said how many schools will be in a position to become academies in September. More than 1,500 schools have expressed interest in becoming academies, it says. Labour questions this number, saying the schools were merely interested in getting more information.

What is a free school?

Free schools are schools which will be set up by groups of parents, teachers, charities, trusts, religious and voluntary groups. They will be set up as academies and will be funded in the same way - directly from central government.

The Academies Bill will make it easier for such groups to set up schools by removing the need for them to consult local councils.

The Free Schools programme attracted a lot of attention in the run-up to the general election.

The scheme is similar to the Charter School system in the United States and the situation in Sweden, where non-profit and profit-making groups can set up schools - funded by the government - but free from its control.

So is there a difference between free schools and academies?

Essentially not, because free schools will be established as academies. But the free schools programme will give parents and teachers the chance to initiate in the creation of a new school if they are unhappy with state schools in a particular local area.

The day-to-day running of free schools will often be by an "education provider" - a group or company brought in by the group setting up the school. The provider would not be allowed to make a profit from running the school.

What happens to the schools left under local authority control?

They will stay as they are.

What are the criticisms of the Academies Bill?

Labour and the big classroom teachers' unions are the chief critics. Labour says the changes will benefit more privileged neighbourhoods and that the best schools will be able to "suck the best teachers and the extra money", leaving those left under local authority being regarded as second best.

Critics also say that the ability of local councils to provide extra services for schools such as help for children with special educational needs will be weakened if a lot of schools in an area become academies.

The NUT (National Union of Teachers) said the move could spell the end of state-provided education and the NASUWT (National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers) that it could "segregate and fragment communities".

There have also been fears that the changes will give too much freedom to faith schools or fundamentalist agendas - for example that they would allow the teaching of Creationism. These have been dismissed by the Education Secretary Michael Gove. He says to reach the necessary "funding agreement" with the government, a school will have to show that its curriculum is broad and balanced.

How will academies be regulated?

They will be subject to inspections by England's schools inspectors Ofsted as other schools are. The government has announced that all outstanding schools will no longer be subject to routine Ofsted inspections - and the first wave of new academies will all have been judged outstanding.

The results of their public exams will continue to be published.

What is the role of local authorities in schools now and how will that change?

Local authorities have a duty to ensure that children in their area receive an education. They coordinate the admissions system - whereby school places are allocated - and will continue to do so, although academies will be responsible for drawing up their admissions criteria in line with the Admissions Code.

Councils are also responsible for monitoring standards in the schools they maintain, in terms of their performance and financial arrangements. They will not have this responsibility over academies.

Mr Gove has said he sees councils continuing to play a strong strategic role in the schools system. The Local Government Association (LGA), which represents local councils, says councils do not run schools but advise and support them. It wants clarification of what this strategic role will involve. It proposes a new role for councils, "as local commissioners of education".

Councils pass on money allocated for schools to individual schools - in most cases about 90% of it. They use the remainder to provide services for pupils with special educational needs and those who are expelled or excluded from mainstream schools. Some money is also spent on nurseries.

New academies will receive all of their funding allocation and will be expected to organise and pay for special education provision themselves. The government has said they will be free to choose to buy in these services from the council as well as other providers.

Why has there been a row about the Academies Bill?

The government has been accused of rushing the bill through Parliament. It wants the law passed in time for some schools to convert to academies in September. MPs have just a week to consider it on the floor of the Commons.

Usually, a bill would pass through a "committee stage", when a panel of MPs would scrutinise it. But in this case, the committee stage is being taken on the floor of the House.

The government has said it made an election pledge to allow schools to take on academy freedoms in September; that the bill has been scrutinised at length in the House of Lords and that taking the committee stage on the floor of the Commons allows more MPs to have their say on this important bill.

The Department for Education has produced a list of "Frequently asked questions" on academies for its website.

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