What is the difference between a Free School and an Academy?!

If you are like most parents I meet, you are probably wondering why we have so many different types of schools. Why is our system so complex?

The first reason we have a complicated school system is that it has evolved over hundreds of years. In the early days, access to education was dependent on how rich you were or if there was a church or charity who offered free education. Most young people did not go to school, there was no curriculum and no qualifications until university level. Over time, the state became more involved in education, it became compulsory and new types of schools were added. It was, and is still, a ‘hodge-podge’ of different institutions. 

By the late 80s, the variety of schools in the system actually suited the narrative of the time – individual choice and marketisation. Exam data and inspection reports were made public and parents were given a ‘choice’ about which school to send their child. The idea being that ‘the market’ would create competition and drive improvement in the system. Over the years, this has been enhanced (or made even worse – depending on your politics), with the addition of ‘free schools’ (new schools set-up by teachers, parents or the community) or by allowing schools to ‘break-away’ and become academies – supposedly allowing more freedom and innovation. More recently, the development of ‘multi-academy trusts’ (MATs) means there is an additional layer of fragmentation (or choice – depending on your politics).

Whether you agree or disagree with this approach – this is the current system you are dealing with as a parent. It is unlikely to change any time soon. 

History lesson over (I am a history teacher…). Just one more short detour before we get into the details.

Does my child need to pass a test to get into a school?

The biggest difference between all of the schools in our system – and something very few people talk about – is what your child needs to do to get in. Broadly speaking, most state schools do not ‘select’ students on anything other than location. In other words, your child will not have to pass a test, or meet certain requirements, to join the school.

However, there are a sizable minority of schools which do put up ‘barriers to entry’. The most obvious of these barriers is an academic test. Grammar schools restrict entry to those who achieve a certain grade on the 11+ test.

Private schools will usually expect students to have sat a test, such as the Common Entrance Exam. They may also interview prospective students. Of course, independent schools have another barrier to entry – are you rich enough to pay the fees?

Beyond selecting by supposed academic ability (or bank balance) there are other ways a school may restrict who can enrol. In single-sex schools there is the obvious – although, increasingly ambiguous (expect more controversy in the future…) – selection by sex. Then there are the schools with a religious affiliation, which may set out criteria for entry. Church of England schools usually have no faith requirements, but other religions may be more selective – for example, requiring a reference from a priest to vouch for your commitment.

There are other types of schools which restrict entry, but these are catering for a minority of students – for example, students with severe special needs or students who have been expelled from mainstream education.

So, now the groundwork has been laid, let’s get into the details…

What are Local Authority Schools (LEA or LA Schools)?

About 60% of schools in England are Local Authority Schools. At secondary level, this is about 40% so the chances are, your local secondary option will be an academy. The trend is for fewer and fewer Local Authority Schools. In many areas, you will struggle to find one.

These schools are funded by the central government via the local authority. The elected council in the area oversees the finances, staffing, curriculum, admissions and general operation of the school. These schools have to follow the National Curriculum. If you attended a comprehensive school as a child, it would almost certainly have been this type of school. Nowadays, it is much more likely that your child will attend an academy at secondary level.

What is an academy?

About 40% of schools in England are academies, although about 60% of secondary schools have been academised. The likelihood is that your local options will include an academy. In many cases, you will only have the option of an academy.

These schools are funded directly by central government. These schools oversee their own finances, staffing, curriculum and operations. They are not controlled by the local authority. Academies also have the freedom to make their own curriculum decisions – they do not need to follow the National Curriculum.

Academies may be ‘sponsored’ by businesses, universities, faith groups, or other educational trusts. Almost all academies are now part of a ‘multi-academy trust’ (MAT) – some of which are huge organisations which oversee hundreds of schools. Some MATs allow lots of autonomy for the individual schools, while other MATs have taken a strong centralising approach – managing not only finance and operations, but also the curriculum, pedagogical approach and school policies. It is quite common in this model to have an ‘Executive Head’ who runs a number of schools. The person in charge of the MAT is often known as a CEO.

As a parent, does it matter whether your child attends a Local Authority school or an academy? Probably no, but it depends. In my next article, I will be exploring the pros and cons of all the different types of schools. For now, here is a summary of the difference between Local Authority schools and academies…

What are the main differences between a Local Authority School and an Academy?

  • Academies have more control over their budget and finances, allowing them to make decisions independently without relying on the local authority for funding. Although, increasingly this freedom is delegated to MAT level – rather than at school level.


  • Academies have more freedom to set their own admissions criteria whereas local authority schools often follow the admissions policy set by the local authority.


  • Academies have more freedom to deviate from the National Curriculum. However, Ofsted will still want to ensure that any changes are at least as good as what is set out in the National Curriculum. This freedom is also limited by the fact that students in all schools will sit standardised GCSE (or equivalent) exams at 16 – the curriculum for these is determined by the exam boards. All schools must follow all statutory curriculum aspects such as sex education, careers education and physical activity.


  • Local authority schools may have a closer connection to the local community and may collaborate more closely with other local schools, whereas academies have the potential to form partnerships or collaborations beyond their local area. Some Multi-Academy Trusts have schools all over England.

Finally, how do you know if a school is a Local Authority school or an academy? The chances are, if it is part of an academy, this will be visible somewhere – either on the school sign, in the school reception or on the school website. Another way to tell is by looking at the email address. This is not a guarantee, but an academy will likely have a .com / .co.uk / .org ending, whilst a Local Authority school will be a .gov / .sch / .[inset local council].sch.uk ending. This might not work 100% of the time, but it is a pretty good indicator!

So, we have now covered the two main types of schools you are likely to encounter. However, we still have a few more to get through…

What is a Free School?

The ‘Free School’ programme was introduced by Michael Gove during his stint as education secretary. The idea behind the policy was to increase further the amount of choice in the system. If, in a local area, a group of parents (or other group such as teachers or community organisation) felt that there wasn’t enough choice of schools, they could set up their own. 

The process is a lot more complicated than I am making it sound here! 

The new schools which were set up, are called ‘free schools’ (although, many do not use that in their name). 

For our purposes, they are exactly the same as academies. The only real difference between an academy and a free school is: an academy was a LA school which converted into an academy. A free school is a new school and a whole new organisation.

The free school programme is still running – however, it is much smaller than it was originally. It is now very difficult to open a school via this route and I think it will be phased out or changed beyond recognition over the next few years.

What are independent or private schools?

Independent schools or private schools are the same thing. 

They are businesses (with charitable status – giving some tax breaks in return for doing outreach with state schools). This means that they fund the school by charging tuition fees. As they are not dealing with taxpayers money, they have more freedom and less oversight from the government – meaning they control everything from staffing, to curriculum to admissions. 

The majority of independent schools will not be inspected by Ofsted – they have their own, independent, inspectorate. They are also not required to publish exam data in the same way as state schools.

In my next article I will go into the pros and cons of these schools in more depth. If private school is not an option for you and your family – you are definitely in the majority! Only around 6% of the students in the UK attend an independent school. 

What are grammar schools? (skip this section if you are not in a grammar school area)

Grammar schools are not available in all areas of the UK. The government tried to phase out grammar schools in the late 1960s, but some remain. There is currently a ban on creating new grammar schools. They are mostly found in Kent, Buckinghamshire, Essex and Lincolnshire although there may be some in other areas too. Some grammar schools became private schools – if so, they may have ‘grammar school’ in the name, but they are effectively the same as the private schools (above).

However, there are still a couple of hundred state-funded grammar schools around. These schools select students based on their success in a test, usually called the 11+ (and usually taken early in the final year of primary school).

Although grammar schools can be quite popular, there are a lot of arguments against this system which I will explore in the next article.

Next steps - your homework…

As a parent, the variety of schools in the system can feel overwhelming. I hope this article has helped you feel more confident as you navigate the transition from primary into secondary school. 


The next step (your homework!) is to look at the different schools in the area – not all of these options will be available to you. Those in big cities will have a greater variety, but also more competitive catchment areas. In addition, you will also want to factor in the important family logistics – for example, commute, friendship groups and after school provision.


Once you have made your list, it is now time to explore in more depth the pros and cons of each of the different school options… (coming directly to your inbox soon!)