Should a school’s legal status influence the school you choose for your child? Are you considering switching? This article summarises the practical differences between an independent school, a state maintained school and an academy.
What is a Maintained school?
A maintained school is a state school that is maintained by a local education authority (LEA); typically, the council. It is the most common educational provision in the country, accounting for 60% of all pupils in England.
A maintained school must follow the National Curriculum, and national teacher pay and conditions. Pupils must take national assessments. In return for oversight, running costs and salaries are paid according to a national formula.
Maintained schools offer the most regulated and formulaic provision; the “one size fits all”. The advantage is that there is one common standard for all pupils across the country. And that standard can be effectively monitored and managed.
Differentiation in provision is mainly due to the energy and personalities of the head and teaching staff. Supporters argue that maintained schools are the most socially cohesive schools. And that they promote co-operation rather than competition between schools.
What are Community schools, Foundation schools and Voluntary schools?
They are all maintained schools, that is, schools with LEA oversight, but the degree of LEA influence varies.
The LEA owns a community school’s land, buildings, and assets. As such, it is responsible for maintenance, governance, admissions policy, and staff appointments.
At the other end of the scale, a charitable trust or a board of governors own the land, building and assets of a foundation or trust school. As such, the governing body sets the admissions criteria and employs the teachers.
The land and buildings of a voluntary controlled school is owned by religious trust. The trust appoints a quarter of the governing board and has some influence over faith-based admissions. Other than that, the LEA maintains the school as it would a community school
A voluntary aided school is like a voluntary aided school, but the trust contributes towards the capital costs of the school. The trust has a majority representation on the governing board, employs the staff and sets the admissions criteria.
If you think these different types of maintained school sound like a political fudge, you’d be right. They represent the historical and gradual transfer of school ownership from the Church to the State.
What is an Independent or Private school?
An independent or private school is independent of state financing and control. It owns its land, buildings, and assets. It is free to choose its own curriculum, teaching hours, staff hiring policy and admissions policy. And it can appoint its own board of governors, trustees, or directors. About 50% are charitable trusts and the other 50% are for-profit companies.
But an independent school is not a free-for-all educational Wild West. It is expected to maintain certain standards, adhere to guidelines, and is inspected by Ofsted/ISI to ensure compliance. Standards will include curriculum content, quality of leadership, suitability of staff, pupil safety and welfare, and complaints handling.
The independent school charges fees, which is a deterrent for many. To justify those fees the school has to offer something more or different to a state school. That difference may be structural such as mixed or single sex, or faith or no faith at all. It could also be teaching ratios, facilities, or breadth of provision.
What is the difference between Private, Independent, and Public schools?
The terms “independent school” and “private school” are synonyms. The terms are interchangeable.
The term “public school” is somewhat outmoded. It originally referred to seven schools regulated by the 1868 Public Schools Act; Eton, Harrow, Winchester, Westminster, Charterhouse, Rugby, and Shrewsbury. These are the schools that inform the stereotypes of class-based privilege. Today, public school can refer to a school whose headteacher belongs to the Headmasters Conference (HMC) or the Girls’ Schools Association (GSA). More often, it is used for any fee-paying independent senior school.
They are distinct from their independent primary equivalent; the preparatory school (prep). Traditionally, a prep school educated children (boys) from age seven to 13 in preparation for entry to public school. Today, the prep educates children to age 11 or 13, depending on the destination school. Many prep schools include a nursery and a pre-prep (Reception and Infants).
Is an Academy a Maintained school?
An academy is a state school that is funded directly by central government. It is considered an independent state school. Independent, that is, of local authority control.
By June 2020, 35.6% of English state primaries and 77.5% of secondaries had converted from maintained to academy status. A further 7% of primary schools and 3.7% of secondary schools were in the academisation pipeline.
An academy differs from a maintained school in that it does not have to follow the National Curriculum. It must, however, teach maths, English, and science, and the curriculum has to be “broad and balanced”.
The land, buildings and assets are owned by a charitable trust. It can set its own school hours and staff pay and conditions. The academy’s admissions policy must be the same as it was before its change in legal status. This means that it can’t be selective if it wasn’t before. If it was a faith school before, it must maintain that faith-based provision. Pupils must still take national exams.
Are Grammar schools and Comprehensive schools state or maintained?
Grammar schools and comprehensive schools are state schools. Grammar schools are wholly or partially selective by academic ability. Comprehensive schools do not select by academic ability.
Both are state schools, but their legal status can be maintained or academy. All but a handful of grammar schools have converted to academies.
Why do schools convert to Academies?
The attraction of academy status to its management is the freedom to set its own budgets and curriculum. The Government sells the academy programme on school autonomy; giving school management ownership of its educational provision. A 2014 DoE survey found that after converting, 87% of academies changed their purchasing and 55% changed their curriculum. A further 8% changed the length of their school day. The change in curriculum and school day should be of most interest to parents as it hints at differentiation and improvement.
Just over 50% of secondary academies and 80% of primary academies belong to Multi Academy Trusts (MATs). These larger buying groups help more efficient purchasing, and by implication, more funds to invest in teaching. They also promote better knowledge sharing among the staff in the trust, and for primaries, access to specialist secondary teachers. So, on the face of it, parents should be positive about academies. They are, in many ways, free independent schools, albeit with lower budgets.
What is the difference between an Academy and a Free school?
Academies are non-profit making trusts with oversight from Ofsted, the Education and Skills Funding Agency, and the Schools Commissioner. Sponsor-led academies were previously underperforming schools. Academy converters were previously high performing schools. Free schools are academies that started from scratch.
There is no legal difference between academies and free schools. Both are accountable through the Funding Agreement between the Secretary of State for Education and the Academy Trust.
The difference is how they originated. An academy is an existing school whose legal status has changed from local authority control. A free school is a brand-new start up school, usually set up by parents, teachers, or charities. To establish a free school the trustees must demonstrate demand for their school. That can involve a lot of parental engagement and canvassing. And as a new school the trustees have freedom to create a new educational proposition from scratch.
Free schools are small in number. In June 2020 they accounted for 1.2% of English primary schools, and 6.3% of secondary schools.
Academies and the press
Negative press has plagued the reputation of academies. The buying efficiencies of MATs have apparently resulted in inflated salaries for senior MAT management. And, some might argue, is there really a difference between the buying efficiency of an MAT and an LEA? Which means that academies really have to start demonstrating improved outcomes as a result of their new freedoms. But, evidence of wholesale improvement isn’t yet forthcoming, as this article points out.