Free for all


Free for all


Critics are concerned that the new freeschools could create a two-tier system, and take even more control from grassroots if funding comes from central government rather than local authorities. Lucy Jolin visited one of the first free primaries in west London to discover how it’s working in practice


In the classroom, a teacher is giving her small pupils a lesson in phonics. Outside, the play area is full of children enjoying the late autumn sunshine. One little girl, bursting with pride, shows off the green dragons her class made out of wooden spoons.


Welcome to Ark Atwood Primary Academy in Queen’s Park, North London. A nondenominational primary specialising in maths and the performing arts, it’s one of the first ‘free schools’ that came into

being under new legislation passed by the coalition government in July 2010.


Now, the first term is under way. ‘It’s different here,’ says Rita Khan, mother of four-year-old Aleem-Opurbo, one of Atwood Primary’s first intake of pupils. ‘You see the goals and the

achievements of the school every day.’


Atwood, she says, reminds her of her own school days. ‘It’s learning in a more traditional manner - but with a twist. Contemporary as well as traditional.’


Headteacher Daniel Upfield says: ‘We have the traditional focus on the basics. We want children to leave here at age 11 able to read, write and do maths better than the national average – but not at the expense of personal, social and creative development.’


As the school has academy status, it doesn’t have to stick to traditional opening hours, and pupils attend from 8.30am to 4pm. This, says Daniel Upfield, allows for more freedom in the curriculum. So along with literacy, numeracy and phonics lessons every day, children can also do dance, drama and Mandarin.


‘Running from 8.30am to 4pm gives children an equivalent of an extra day of learning per week,’ he points out. ‘We have freedom to choose the curriculum we want. We are following the Early Years curriculum – but adapting it to suit our children.’



What are free schools?

New legislation introduced by the coalition government in July 2010 gave groups who wanted to set up their own schools a mechanism to do it. These might be groups of parents or teachers, a faith

group, a charity, or an education provider such as Ark or E-ACT. So a ‘free school’ is simply a school set up under this particular legislation. Some free schools are entirely new and some are

existing schools which have chosen to reopen under the free schools legislation. All free schools must be approved by the

Department of Education, they must be inspected by OFSTED, and they are not allowed to make a profit.


How many are there?

24 free schools in England have been set up since July 2010. These include primary schools and secondary schools. A further 87 are due to open soon.


How are they different?

Free schools have ‘academy’ status. This means that they get their money directly from central government, while mainstream schools get their money from central government via local

authorities. Their academy status means that free schools aren’t

controlled by local authorities. They have more control over certain aspects of the way they operate.


How are they funded?

They get the same amount of money direct from central government that a local authority will get to spend on each school. The difference is that if the funding goes through the local authority, it takes a percentage to pay for central services spread across all its schools, such as special needs provision. Free

schools don’t have to give up this percentage to the local authority so they cut out the middle-man. But if they are run by an education provider such as ARK Schools, the provider will take a percentage instead although it may be less than the local authority would take. Free schools are also given start-up grants direct from central government.


Are they all faith schools?

No. The first wave of free schools includes a Hindu school, a Sikh school, two Jewish schools and several schools run on Christian principles. However, a free school doesn’t have to be a faith school – the majority are non-denominational.


Why should I investigate a free school?

Many free schools specialise in certain subjects, such as maths or the performing arts. Some have extended school days. Some free schools are making smaller class sizes a feature. Others have the same amount as in mainstream primaries.


How can I get my child in?

Every free school has to abide by the School Admissions Code which mainstream schools also have to follow. Some elements are mandatory - for example, no school is allowed to use interviews to

select pupils. Others are guidelines that schools can follow if they wish. In oversubscribed schools various criteria are applied to establish who gets a place. The Code is currently under review and may change soon. A major change suggested is allowing free schools to give priority to pupils from poorer backgrounds.



Unlike most free schools, Atwood Primary wasn’t set up by a group of parents or teachers, or a faith group. It came into being when Westminster Council was seeking ways to deal with a shortage of local primary school places and approached UK education charity ARK Schools. In its first term, Atwood has 59 children of reception

age, divided into two classes. It will eventually have 420 pupils.


Rita Khan says: ‘The longer days, the specialisation in maths, and the emphasis on music and performing arts all appealed to me. It’s also a small school and the pupil-teacher ratio is a lot lower.’


Setting up a new school has been a challenge, but Daniel Upfield believes that it also has its advantages. ‘You don’t have anyone saying: “But we used to do it like this”,’ he points out. ‘It’s a great opportunity to do everything the way you want to from the beginning.


‘We do need to remember to think of everything – from how the children line up in the playground to how we’re going to do assessment practices. We’re constantly testing things, evaluating them and changing them if we need to. There will be things that we do differently in our second year,’ he adds.


Walking around the school, its ethos is clear to see – words like ‘aspiration’, ‘integrity’ and ‘perseverance’ are everywhere. ‘At Atwood, our values culture underpins everything we do,’ says

Upfield. ‘Children are introduced to words like ‘”integrity” and they know that it means being honest and being their best selves.

Underpinning our values are high ambitions for pupils’ levels of aspiration and achievement. We have strong expectations that children will achieve at or above national levels.’


Rita Khan agrees. ‘Aleem-Opurbo actually comes out with words like “integrity”,’ she says. ‘He explains to me what it means.

Sometimes he gets it mixed up! I find that very sweet but I also think it’s a very good thing for him to have in his head.’


With 24 free schools already in operation and a further 87 set to open next year, it seems that they’re going to be part of the education landscape for the foreseeable future. Rita Khan would like to see more schools like Atwood. ‘If I had the choice of sending every child to school it would be a school like this,’ she says.


‘I think increased choice can only help to widen the field for parents,’ says Upfield. ‘I believe it’s really important for schools to work in collaboration. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a free school or an academy or a state primary – at the end of the day, it’s about offering the best possible education for the children.’


More info



The New Schools Network (

has information about setting up a free school.



March/April 2012

All information is correct at time of publishing