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On 10 January 2018 the House of Lords will debate “the contribution made by free schools to improving educational standards”. Free schools are state funded schools which are not controlled by local authorities and are instead funded directly by the Department for Education. Free schools have more latitude to operate independently than maintained schools and operate in law as academies. For example, free schools are not required to follow the national curriculum, have more control over setting their own school days and year and can set their own pay and conditions for staff.  Mainstream free schools set their own admissions arrangements but, like mainstream maintained schools, are bound to follow the Admissions Code. Free schools, like all other state-funded schools, are subject to Ofsted inspections to ensure the quality of the education they provide. 

Free schools, based on the Swedish ‘free schools’ and ‘charter schools’ movement in the US, were included in the Conservative 2010 manifesto. The Liberal Democrats 2010 manifesto included a commitment to “sponsor managed schools”. The Coalition agreement, published in May 2010, included a pledge “to give parents, teachers, charities and local communities the chance to set up new schools, as part of our plans to allow new providers to enter the state school system in response to parental demand”. The initial aims of the free schools were: higher standards; increasing local choice for parents; injecting competition between local schools; tackling educational inequality; and encouraging innovation.

The first free schools opened in September 2011; the Government recently confirmed that there are 442 open free schools. The introduction of free schools has been contentious. Proponents argue that the free schools programme empowers teachers and headteachers; promotes innovation; improves educational standards and tackles educational inequality. Critics argue that free schools have not genuinely improve standards in schools or outcomes for pupils and are a waste of money. Recent reports by the National Audit Office, Sutton Trust and Education Policy Institute suggest that it is too early to robustly evaluate the impact of free schools on educational standards.

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