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, maintained school and an academy.
A maintained school 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. The LEA is responsible for maintaining the school, the governance, admissions policy and staff appointments. There are variations for faith schools, which you can read about in this article.
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. Proponents argue that maintained schools are the most socially cohesive and they promote co-operation rather than competition between schools.
An independent school is independent of state financing and control. It is free to choose its own curriculum, teaching hours, staff hiring policy and admissions policy. It also appoints 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.
By 2017 22% of English state primaries and 68% of secondaries had converted from maintained to academy status. An academy is a state school that is funded directly by central government. It differs from a maintained school in that it does not have to follow the National Curriculum. 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. Pupils must still take national exams.
Academies are organised as 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.
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.
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.