Boris calls for more free schools - but what are they?

Children writing in a classroom.
More than a third of England's free schools are in London. Photo:

Boris Johnson has said he wants to create more free schools in the capital.

During his speech to the Conservative Party Conference yesterday, the Mayor said that he wanted to work with the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, to set up more of them across London.

It's a bold indication that the Mayor wants more power over education - an area traditionally controlled by local authorities rather than City Hall. But what are free schools anyway? And why does it matter whether or not the Mayor gets his way?

Here's our guide to the free school debate.

WHAT ARE FREE SCHOOLS?

Free schools are not-for-profit state-funded schools that are independent from local authority control. They have the freedom to diverge from the national curriculum, to set their own pay and conditions for staff, and to hire teachers who may not have the usual qualifications.

They can be set up wherever there is demand in the local community and are run by "any suitable proposer", from charities, universities and educational groups, to teams of teachers or parents.

HOW ARE FREE SCHOOLS SET UP?

The proposer submits an application to the Education Secretary, who considers whether:

  • there is evidence of parental demand for a new school

  • there is a compelling business case.

All proposers have to go through a vetting process, including criminal records checks, and any proposers who advocate violence, intolerance, hatred, or any other ideology that runs counter to the UK’s democratic values, will be rejected.

Detailed information on the full application process is available from the New Schools Network.

IF FREE SCHOOLS ARE INDEPENDENT, HOW ARE STANDARDS MAINTAINED?

Free schools are subject to the same Ofsted inspections as all state schools.

WHAT OTHER RULES ARE THERE?

Free schools are not allowed to be academically selective. They are also expected to take part in their local coordinated admissions process, so parents apply for places in the same way as they would for any other local school.

WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A FREE SCHOOL AND AN ACADEMY?

Essentially, there is not much of a difference between a free school and an academy - some free schools even use the word "academy" in their name. Both types of school are free from local authority control and get their funding direct from central government. The main difference is that free schools are normally brand-new schools, set up by various organisations. Academies are usually created by converting an existing local authority-run school.

WHAT'S THE POINT IN FREE SCHOOLS?

Advocates of free schools argue that they will raise educational standards, by giving teachers more autonomy.

"The highest-performing education systems are those where government knows when to step back. We want a school system in which teachers have more power and in which they are more accountable to parents – not politicians."

– Education Secretary Michael Gove

WHAT ARE THE ARGUMENTS AGAINST FREE SCHOOLS?

Opponents of the free school movement argue that they will have an adverse impact on existing schools - the cost of setting up new schools could take money out of the available funding pot and, if free schools attract pupils away from local authority schools, they could leave empty spaces in some classrooms.

They also argue that free schools could be bad for social cohesion:

[Free schools] are deliberately established to stand in isolation from the local authority family of schools. There is the real potential for them to lead to parents seeking segregated schools, as has happened abroad."

– NASUWT teaching union.

HOW MANY EXISTING FREE SCHOOLS ARE THERE IN LONDON?

London already has a large proportion of the country's free schools. Out of the 79 that have been set up across England, 27 of them are within Greater London - more than a third. Another 30 have also been approved to open in 2013 or 2014.

Map showing the location of London's free schools.
There are 27 free schools in Greater London. Credit: Department for Education / Google Maps.

Click here to see a full, interactive version of this map. Below is a full list of London's free schools:

CENTRAL

CET Primary School, Westminster

ARK Atwood Primary Academy, Kensal Town

EAST

Canary Wharf College

School 21, Stratford

London Academy of Excellence, Stratford

CET Primary School, Tower Hamlets

Wapping High School

City Gateway 14-19 Provision, Shadwell

Aldborough E-ACT Free School, Ilford

WEST

ARK Conway Primary, north Hammersmith

West London Free School, Hammersmith

Reach Academy Feltham

NORTHAvanti House School, Wealdstone

Etz Chaim Jewish Primary School, Mill Hill

Krishna Avanti Primary School, Edgware

Rimon Jewish Primary School, Golders Green

St Luke's Church of England Primary School, Hampstead

Emmanuel Community School, Walthamstow

Enfield Heights Academy

Hartsbrook E-ACT Free School, Enfield

Kinfisher Hall Primary Academy, Enfield

Woodpecker Hall Primary Academy, Edmonton

Eden Primary, Muswell Hill

SOUTH

Bolingbroke Academy, Wandsworth

Southwark Free School

Greenwich Free School

Harris Primary Free School, Peckham