Any experience of private school turning to 'Free School'?

(58 Posts)
Killmenowpls Sun 08-Jan-12 21:23:29

The independent school my 2 dds attend has just written to us to say it is applying to become a 'Free School' funded by the Government in 2013. Has anyone had any experience of this?

I think at the moment I'm pleased, I never intended to send dds private, it was just the school we're in catchment for is really bad. So if it means it will stay a half decent school but now I won't have to pay fees, happy days! grin

Anybody got any experience of this at all? I'd never even heard of 'Free Schools' till yesterday!

awayinamanger Sun 08-Jan-12 21:29:56


Killmenowpls Sun 08-Jan-12 21:35:45

thank you Away grin

pimmsgalore Sun 08-Jan-12 21:41:48

there was one that tried to do it here, was looking at sending mine there but then as it didn't get free school status it went bust and all the DCs were told on Monday that school was shutting on Friday. I would be asking if there are any financial problems if I was you

coccyx Sun 08-Jan-12 21:43:22

Have to ask what happens to other children in area who need a state place

fivegomadindorset Sun 08-Jan-12 21:45:31

They are setting up one round here in 2013.

Tranquilidade Sun 08-Jan-12 21:46:35

Lots of independent schools are struggling at the moment so have heard of several trying to merge or become free schools but have not heard of any that have done it other than in the big educational trusts. One school near us is part of UCST and they have done this sort of thing with some of their schools.

Killmenowpls Sun 08-Jan-12 21:48:52

Coccyx - Sorry, I don't understand your question? confused

Interesting re monetary problems, there are definitely a lot of bursaries available at the school and some very low class sizes too, so perhaps there are money issues for the school.

Five - Im assuming you're in Dorset? We're West Midlands.

awayinamanger Sun 08-Jan-12 22:27:16

here's a map showing where free schools are opening. It doesn't tell you if they are currently private though. I know St Michael's in Cornwall is though.

Runoutofideas Mon 09-Jan-12 07:53:01

Colston's Girls in Bristol has done this and they are still very well regarded and achieving good results - however they haven't yet had GCSE results for their first intake on the "Fair banding system" which will, I think, be more revealing. At the moment the children taking GCSEs are those who joined when the school was academically selective and fee paying. Under the new system, everyone sits an exam and they band them A-E then take 20% from each band thus ensuring a comprehensive intake - well that's how I understand it anyway. My children don't go there though, so can only go on local reputation.

Runoutofideas Mon 09-Jan-12 07:54:04

It turned into an academy rather than a free school, but I think the differences between the two are more in the logistics of the set-up rather than the subsequent running of the school.

hocuspontas Mon 09-Jan-12 08:18:23

I'm sure they just can't keep the current children. Wouldn't all children have to apply for a place and get accepted based on fair admission criteria?

Runoutofideas Mon 09-Jan-12 09:13:26

I don't think so, because how can you kick out children who have started their GCSE courses? Especially when Free Schools are often set up in areas which are lacking in school places. They couldn't turf children out and leave them with no school place. They have a commitment to the current children to keep them there. They may take in extras if the school is larger as an academy/free school, but in general the intake changes lower down the school for standard year 7 entry. If the independent school closes rather than converts then it may be a different story....

MoreBeta Mon 09-Jan-12 09:21:31


I very much agree that a lot of independent schools (and especially girls independent near boys independent schools that have gone mixed) are under financial pressure.

I have wondered if one or several of our local independent schools might be looking at becoming a Free school. There just isn't the wealth in our area to suatin teh number of independent schools we have. Several Prep schoosl have merged and with falling house prices Grandparents are less willing/able to release capital to pay for school fees now.

themightyfandango Mon 09-Jan-12 10:07:04

This school changed to a free school last september, if you do some digging via google there might be opinions floating about.


honisoit Mon 09-Jan-12 12:01:07

If they are applying to be a free school, there are almost certainly serious financial problems. The large number of bursaries and small classes are another indicator.

They won't be accepted as a free school if they have significant debt, which is likely.

What stage is the application at? Are they at the gathering info stage, where they assess the demand in the local community? Have they offered any alternative proposal should the free school application be unsuccessful? What is their plan for remaining open as an independent school? Expect an exodus of pupils at this time.

Free schools can set their own admissions criteria as long as they are not academically selective. This includes retaining current pupils.

soandsosmummy Mon 09-Jan-12 17:19:01

Are they a registered charity - if so you should be able to check their accounts for free through the charities commission website. If they are a limited company you'd need to pay a small charge to download them from companies house. It does sound like a financial problem to me.

mumblesmum Mon 09-Jan-12 18:37:11

This is going to liven up the state Vs private debate!

Killmenowpls Tue 10-Jan-12 10:27:57

Hocus - they have said all children currently there have a guaranteed place.

They are currently part of a charity I believe SoandSo, will have a look at the accounts.

Honisoit - interesting, thank you. Currently they are at the gathering info stage I believe, they have a questionnaire to assess demand in the community. I'm a bit scared at what will happen if they are unsucessful now. We have a meeting tomorrow night to talk about this so will update then when I know more.

Thanks again for all your replies.

choccyp1g Tue 10-Jan-12 10:32:49

I wouldn't get your hopes up about getting a private education for free, as surely the Government funding could only apply to the new intake?

unreasonablemuch Tue 10-Jan-12 11:10:20

Ours did, although we've moved from it now, school was in dire financial straits, all children in the school and starting will be free.

I have heard very mixed opinions of what it is like now, mostly bad to be honest, they took a lot of children in the older class years who had been expelled from other schools, had pretty severe behavioural problems and some who had SEN. I have no issue with this as one of my dds is SEN but being a small private school they didnt have the facilities, staff or experience to deal with it.

They also went from 40 children to almost 150 within three weeks and all hell broke lose, they didnt have enough staff, children ended up in mixed age classes of more than 3 school years together and staff where not used to teaching or managing large class sizes.

honisoit Tue 10-Jan-12 18:16:48


Let us know how the meeting goes.

I imagine that this is a huge shock to all involved - both parents and teachers, as well as students, of course.

Expect the meeting to be extremely hostile. Expect the press to be involved and the chattering classes in your local community.

Expect competitor schools to aggressively advertise for your pupils and to spread untruths about your school. Most of all, expect parents to panic and to jump.

Is there an third party company running this?

If your school is in a bad financial situation, with debts, it is unlikely that you could become a free school. The money in the pot is not there to pay off debts.

The idea behind free schools is that, ultimately, you become a state school with 30 pupils in a class. This is all the long term funding allows, although the school would be able to use voluntary contributions to reduce class sizes. If your school building cannot accommodate these enormous classes at this time, the slush fund that the school applies for is to cover any transition period (in the region of 5 years).

What you need at this stage is a true alternative to the free school (an 'independent school' scenario). Without this, you will haemorrage pupils. Although it is nice to think of getting this style of education for free, the majority of families are in your school because they want independent - and will go wherever they find this. You need the trustees to come up with a cost effective strategy that will allow you to remain open. This typically means getting rid off all the non-essential costs, and to invite those families on bursaries to start paying (or to leave). Bursaries only need to be around 5% of fee income, and you will get this by keeping on your bursary pupils who are currently in exam classes.

If the free school proposal is accepted by government, you are laughing. The characteristics of your school will change, but over a five year period. You have to think how this will impact your own children. The effect will depend on their year group. If the free school is not accepted, or the process is sluggish, this will take the toll on your school. You will lose pupils in the period of uncertainty and find it difficult to recruit new ones. There will probably be staff redundancies, and deep cuts in school services. One of the frustrating things you will find is to know when people are being straight with you, or whether they are being economical with the truth.

Good luck and please keep us posted.

LittenTree Tue 10-Jan-12 20:02:56

Now I don't know if what I think I read is true: That Gove is considering allowing free schools to be selective?

I could certainly believe it in that this brave new experiment of his has to be seen to be working (i.e. good GCSE results which is the only currency that counts, innit?!) - therefore it's in his interests to 'bend the rules' a bit to achieve that. I mean, did I not also read that Toby Young and the other founders of that west London free school were able to circumvent the strict, 'fair', entrance criteria to allow their own DC in (the 'logic' being no one would set up a free school with all the hassle involved if it didn't directly benefit themselves)?.

We'll see the same happen with the privatisation of the NHS. Lansley has to make it seem to be working so he will 'allow' private companies to pick and choose what they will and won't do so as to entice them into the market place.

It's what the Conservatives do. So I confidently expect to see the emergence of schools that are 'private' and selective- except the lucky parents won't have to pay, and I foresee the 'sharp elbowed' amongst us lining up to get our DCs in! I believe would if it were an option. But I shouldn't be allowed to.

Killmenowpls Tue 10-Jan-12 21:16:32

Very interesting posts, thank you.

I've had a chat tonight with a friend who has chatted with a class teacher and she says that class sizes will be capped at 20.

She says it will be 'selective' whatever that means but doesn't know on what criteria.

When I said that it might not go through if there are debts etc she said that the government had approached the school not the other way round confused

Very curious, I'm awaiting tmrw night with trepidation...

prh47bridge Tue 10-Jan-12 22:31:13

LittenTree - Free schools cannot be selective. I have not seen any indication that Gove is considering changing that. I would be very surprised given that Cameron upset some in his own party by ruling out new grammar schools whilst he was Leader of the Opposition.

Toby Young's school were not allowed to admit the founders' children unless they qualified under the admission criteria. As far as I am aware they did not even attempt to admit these children. However, the proposed new Admissions Code (which won't come in until 2013) would allow free schools to give priority to such children in their admission critera.

Gove has said repeatedly that profit making companies will not be allowed to run academies or free schools.

prh47bridge Tue 10-Jan-12 22:35:22

Just to correct myself slightly - a free school is allowed to be selective for post-16 admissions as is already the case for many sixth forms. However, a free school cannot select on academic ability for pre-16 pupils even if it is converting from a selective independent school. They can select on things like musical ability (as can maintained schools) but not academic ability.

IndigoBell Wed 11-Jan-12 07:21:57

And they can select on non-academic criteria, such as music or sport.

unreasonablemuch Wed 11-Jan-12 09:50:48

Free schools definately can not be selective academically pre 16 at the moment, the dds old school actually gave free places from any area before they turned officially free so they could fill in as many places as possible and didnt have room for the local "deprived area rough children" his words not mine!

LittenTree Wed 11-Jan-12 14:35:44

this may be what I meant

Note: I haven't actually trawled through this though maybe you can see why I was sure I hadn't dreamt it!

honisoit Wed 11-Jan-12 17:25:07

The Guardian article is speculating about academies, not free schools.

Free schools are not allowed to select on academic ability.

They will have selection criteria like any other school, ie looked-after children, catchment area, siblings, etc. They can set aside a certain number of places for religious affiliation and talents. Some schools will have limited appeal, eg curriculum delivered in a foreign language.

What independent schools can do when they convert to a free school is keep on their existing pupils. Ahead of the change, they may recruit new fee-paying students in order to make them eligible for a free-school place.

The profile of the school is likely to go through many changes. At first, those families who would never in a million years use state schools will leave, so that the remaining pupils from the old school are those who struggle to pay fees but value education over most other comforts. Any new fee-paying families will be in a similar category - they can't afford school fees long-term but can dig deep for two terms. After that, it is open to the demographics of the catchment area.

At first, the changes will be small as new pupils join the school to take class sizes up to 16 or 20 (whatever size the classrooms can hold). The school will be similar to most other schools in the area as their class sizes go up to the inevitable 30.

I would take with a pinch of salt that the government invited the school to apply, and that class sizes are limited to 20. The government isn't going to know anything about your school, although the LEA might. 20 isn't feasible based on government funding. There will be a transition fund for about five years to cover building work and small classes, but after this time, the school will be expected to have 30 in a class.

strom Wed 11-Jan-12 22:54:55

You have to bear in mind that this isnt LEA funding (only the admissions criteria is in accordance with the LEA in LINE WITH THE SCHOOL ADMISSIONS POLICY)....its an important point to remember.

Honisoit - Forget the LEA, they run mainstream state schools & academies. This is central govmnt funded scheme. If the resources and class size of the school are limited to 20 then 20 places it is. If the school policy is 20 then its 20 per class - LEA/Dept of Ed cant influence at all. Irrespective of whether its feasible for the government, Dept of Ed pay on a per-head basis; class size per feasibility its nothing to do with it - feasibility is about the school being a going concern overall.

Transition fund - no such thing. Capital is provided by Dept of Ed for NEW SCHOOLS + per-head funding. There is no capital for existing schools.
Contracts for Free Schools have a 7 year notice period for Dept of Ed to withdraw funding. Equally, the same for the school to return to fee paying status. Its in the contract.

honisoit Thu 12-Jan-12 16:46:52

How did the meeting go?

Killmenowpls Thu 12-Jan-12 17:21:14

Meeting was interesting.

Classes will be capped at 20 for Reception and years 1 and 2, rest of school apart from sixth form capped at 22. Only one year group per year. They seem to think this is feasible.

They discussed the 7 year thing which is good.

It all sounds very good, existing pupils will all have a place which is excellent for our eldest dd (selfishly) although not so excellent for our youngest, who is in the nursery where they will receive 'priority' to get a place at the school, but as there are more than 20 pupils in nursery and only 20 places this will mean not every nursery child gets a place. I'm assuming our dd will get priority as she has a sibling at the school?

They said they havent agreed their admissions policy yet but did say it couldnt be selective.

THey talked about having a very wide catchment area although this made no sense to me. They were talking about a catchment of say 40 miles but surely if demand was high this would reduce and reduce till really only the few streets around the school would get a place? If anyone understands this please explain!

The school is currently run by a not for profit trust, but they're saying there is a deficit each year and therefore want to try for free school status. They did not say they would close the school if they didn't succeed but the implication was that 'things would have to change drastically' to get the deficit reduced if they didnt get the free school status.

Killmenowpls Thu 12-Jan-12 17:24:13

One thing that really pissed me off was someone saying (basically) "but poor children might be allowed in and poor parents don't care about their child's education" shock I paraphrase but you get the gist. Very insulting.

Then, and you wont believe this, some bloke stood up and basically said "What if lots of children with SN get in? We all know that SN is another way of saying naughty." ARGHHHHHHHHHHHH

Both of these were ignored/tutted at/glared at so thankfully the rest of the parents don't share these horrendous views angry

IndigoBell Thu 12-Jan-12 17:38:43

A state school is different to a private school, and if it becomes a free school the school will change.

If it's not used to admitting kids who are poor smile or have SN there are likely to be teething problems (at the very least for those kids).

LittenTree Thu 12-Jan-12 19:12:18

And, I confess that, deep in my soul, it does annoy me that such schools can cap their intake at 22 per class. It has been shown that, with 'mixed intake', small class size is up there amongst the best indicators for 'success'. Now, whilst that is of course fantastic if your DC is in such a class, it's not so good for the DC in classes of 34 who 'compensate' for that generosity!

How can they be 'allowed' to 'get away with it'?

I actually know the reason: this government has to be able to demonstrate that its academy/free school scheme is wildly successful. The best way of doing this is to allow such school to 'tweak' things to increase their chance of success, be it via more funding, selection (except for academia, apparently!), safeguarding the existing student body (bet the Cons crow about the success of their scheme this coming summer if not next, overlooking that many DCs in these new 'free schools and academies who pass GCSEs this summer have been 'private', complete with selection and middle-classed-ness!- throughout their ed), and of course, 'allowing' small class sizes.

MrsHoarder Thu 12-Jan-12 19:50:14

They can do the class sizes of 22 because they aren't bound by government contracts. That means that they can do some hours with people who aren't qualified teachers and don't have to agree to the national pay agreements.

Also because they can choose their own intake size and don't have the number of pupils the LEA chooses to give them to a much greater extent.

LittenTree Thu 12-Jan-12 20:01:27

Oh, I'm sure they can do that- what I'm asking is 'How can that be fair?'

Killmenowpls Thu 12-Jan-12 20:27:39

They've said the teaching salaries will go up, not down and said they won't be using non qualified.

Litten - I totally agree that most of the children in the school after it turns to free school will have been privately educated/middle class and therefore the success of the school for at least the first say 5 years could be down to that rather than anything to do with the 'free school' status.

All very confusing. If the interest isnt there locally it won't go ahead anyway so will have to wait and see...

prh47bridge Thu 12-Jan-12 23:14:04

Regarding catchment, if they plan to use a random lottery as their tie breaker it may well be true that children will be able to get in from a wide area.

LittenTree - Any school can cap class sizes at 22 if they want provided they can do so without running a deficit. According to the 2010 school census the average class size at secondary schools is 20.5. Only 6.5% of classes have more than 30 pupils.

Academies, free schools and voluntary aided schools (i.e. most faith schools) set their own admission number. The LA only sets the admission number for community schools and voluntary controlled schools. The school can appeal to the Schools Adjudicator if they object to the admission number set by the LA but the rules are such that the LA will normally win. All of this was exactly the same under the last government.

School funding is complex but in essence a free school will receive the same amount per pupil as other schools in the area plus some additional funding (LACSEG) to cover services which the LA provides to maintained schools but which free schools have to fund for themselves.

All secondary schools are free to select on aptitude for certain subjects provided no more than 10% of their pupils are selected in this way. A free school is subject to the same rules.

Loshad Sat 14-Jan-12 13:28:32

prh47bridge, how on earth does the census get that figure - is it by means of including the pupils who have 1:1 or 1:2 in learning support units within the school. I've worked in 4 secondary schools and none of them had normal class sizes around 20 for pre 16 education.
I currently teach 11 groups from y8-y13, the y13 groups are less than 20, all 3 are 12-15 pupils in number so if you add those in the averages go down, would do even more so for post 16 languages which do not seem to be very popular at all, but all my main school classes are much bigger. I have 2 classes of 31 out of my 7 main school classes, and in fact all our top sets throughout the 11-16 age range have 31 or 32 students in them.
Basically don't be fooled by the "average" class size fellow mumsnetters, most students in nearly all schools are in classes of 26-31 for nearly all subjects (DT/food tech tend to be exceptions).

prh47bridge Sat 14-Jan-12 15:31:27

I cannot give a definitive answer to that question but the way the data is collected suggests that the average is not driven down by pupils in learning support units as you suggest - teachers giving 1:1 support to pupils are specifically excluded from the census, for example. The information available suggests the figure is driven down by KS4 and KS5 class sizes. The KS3 figure is a little over 24, KS4 is around 20 and KS5 is around 12. Even taking the KS3 figure, this school's ambition of capping at 22 doesn't seem too far out of line.

The figure has been falling for the last 5 years at least, from 21.5 in 2006 and was actually 20.4 in 2011 - apologies for the typo in my previous post.

Loshad Sat 14-Jan-12 17:25:03

ah ok, can see if you include ks5 the average would dip massively. Still somewhat surprised at your KS3 and 4 figures.

honisoit Sat 14-Jan-12 17:49:34

I imagine that the average class size is much higher in over-subscribed schools, with typical class sizes in KS3 subjects and in core subjects in KS4 of 30 to a class. Options subjects may well have much smaller classes.

Dozer Sun 15-Jan-12 10:08:53

Presumably if DfE refuses funding then the school would have to close sooner rather than later?

Is there actual evidence that DfE approached them, rather than the other way round? What are DfE's policies on selecting free schools? Can they confirm that they approached the school?

I would be looking for another school tbh, as it all sounds fragile.

Dozer Sun 15-Jan-12 10:10:20

Sounds like the school is desperately looking for a way to stay open. No guarantee that they will get approval from DfE.

strom Sun 15-Jan-12 13:39:56

Dozer - the school has net assets of c£1m. These is no suggestion it will close.

Govmnt Building For Schools programme still wont deliver enough school places . Estimates of child place requirements to grow 15% for 2014/15 intake.

Free Schools will basically "purchase" the 53,000 available places in the private sector - we will see much more of this. Its cheaper to educate in the private sector over state schools and results are (generally) much better. Its a sound policy.

honisoit Sun 15-Jan-12 14:26:41

It's a sound policy, but I don't think it will pay off debts of any school. The school has to basically be viable now, and in the future.

Killmenowpls Sun 15-Jan-12 17:01:09

Dozer how do you know what assets the school has? confused

Dozer Sun 15-Jan-12 21:35:25

I didn't say anything about knowing about the assets, just - to me, uninformed lay person!- the situation sounds fragile, if it isn't viable as a private school (loss-making, are the assets in cash or property?) and isn't selected as a free school. Think losses were mentioned upthread. if the accounts were available would be looking at them, eg for bank loans (that could be called in) trends etc.

Strom, is it really cheaper to educate in the private sector, per head?

Killmenowpls Sun 15-Jan-12 22:20:07

Sorry Dozer, I addressed my question to the wrong poster blush I meant Strom.

I too think its a precarious financial position if it doesnt get free school status...

strom Mon 16-Jan-12 11:41:02

Dozer - Independent Schools Council reported that it costs c£9k per pupil in state school. Adam Smith Institute say its cheaper in the private sector.

All accounts for charity orgs are available online. Its fair to say that the mainstream private sector is not very healthy or stable (FYI, 37% of private schools have changed ownership in the last 10 years).

This school is running at a deficit but it is secured short-term by reasonable assets (reserves and property, same as all 'businesses') - long term its not going to guaranteed of anything BUT, even if it was, arguably the Free School policy is still a good option for the school as capacity is taken up and finances ARE guaranteed - that MUSt be good ?

Worth remembering that Dept of Edu have had capital budget (for new schools etc) reduced by 60% so they HAVE to do something like this - i presume thats why the Opposition have been very quiet given that generally middle class parents will have fees paid.

Rosebud05 Sun 22-Jan-12 21:54:52

Things move quickly in education, don't they?

Since this thread started, it's become explicit that founders' children will get priority places at WLFS and that for-profit companies are beginning to stake claims on the free school market.

Dozer Sun 22-Jan-12 22:48:59

On costs of state school education vs private, DfE now publishes data on expenditure per pupil by individual school. Data for Primary here (south east) says around £3,750 per pupil per year.

Don't know what is / isn't covered, but big difference between £3.75k and £9k! And indeed school fees.

debs227 Sat 28-Jan-12 20:34:37

very interesting thread. Have they given you a date when the decision will be made on becoming a free school?? Are you happy with the education your child is receiving up to now? Do you have other options if the free school application isn't successful?

NiceViper Sat 28-Jan-12 20:56:44

"I'm assuming our dd will get priority as she has a sibling at the school?"

I wouldn't count on this. Children admitted under a selective system do not confer priority to siblings (round here, anyway). You will need to keep an eye on exact proposals.

freeschoolescapee Wed 30-Oct-13 22:48:28

I have just moved my child from an independent school planning to convert to a free school. Does anyone have experience of dispute with school over lack of notice? School put back meeting to inform parents four times which meant less than a terms notice could be given for the start of the new academic year. Also PTA members knew about application before parents and moved their children to new schools with a full terms notice. Have just received threat of legal action to recover fees in lieu of a terms notice... any ideas?

Alexandrite Sun 03-Nov-13 15:05:03

That's appalling freeschool. Surely they won't have a leg to stand on as they purposely delayed telling you, but told PTA members first?

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