Freedom to experiment or the fragmentation of a State Education System? The example of Academy and Free Schools in England

Year: 2015

Author: Lawes, Shirley, Hugon, Marie-Anne

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

For the last thirty years the English state school system has undergone unprecedented change. One of the most fundamental changes has been the introduction of Academy Schools and Free Schools. The first Academies opened by the last Labour government from 2000 aimed to improve under achieving and failing schools. Whilst remaining within the state sector, Academy Schools are outside of local authority control and funded and run by business, philanthropists, or educational charities. Since 2010 when a new Conservative-Liberal government was elected, any school can apply to become an Academy, and currently approaching 60% of former state-maintained schools have changed their status.
Free Schools are an even more controversial phenomenon. Since their inception in 2011, they have grown in number from 25 to over 300. These schools are financed by the state but set up and run by parents, teachers, religious groups – indeed anyone who can meet government requirements. Like Academy Schools, Free Schools are not bound to teach the National Curriculum, but they are subject to the same rigorous inspection as the maintained sector.
There is much debate, often acrimonious about Academies and Free Schools. On the one hand, many educationists, trade unionists and politicians are opposed to what they see as the dismantling of the state system of education and all that that implies in terms of teachers’ conditions of service and educational ethos. On the other hand, many people argue that they represent an attractive possibility of freeing up the system in contrast to the excessive government control and micro-management of education that has reached unprecedented levels in recent years. For them, the idea that more parents, teachers and financial sponsors can improve on what is offered in existing state schools opens up many possibilities.
This paper, based on empirical research undertaken in 2012 and 2013, a recent case-study of a Free School and on-going involvement and interest in the area, will explore the debates and controversies from both an educational and political perspective. It will raise important questions about the state’s responsibility to provide a good education for all children and young people.