Do you know your free schools from your academies? Here’s our guide to secondary schools in England

Do you know your free schools from your academies? Here’s our guide to secondary schools in England

We've all been there – you know you should know how academies and free schools differ, but since it doesn't make the daily grind of planning, assessment and teaching any easier, you have never had a moment to get your head around it.

Our latest instalment of the bite size policy digest gives you a brief overview of all the different types of secondary school in England. Whether you are preparing for a job interview, or you just want to get it perfected for the inevitable dinner party table talk, here's what you need to know:

State schools

State schools are usually non-selective and funded by the local authority.

If a school is oversubscribed, however, it will use a set of admissions criteria to allocate places. This is most often related to a child's residential proximity, but other factors, such as if there is a sibling at the school, are also taken into account.

State schools (without academy status) have to follow the national curriculum and have much of their running decisions – such as term dates and staff pay – dictated by local government.

There are also a few state boarding schools which provide free education, but usually charge for boarding. Some state boarding schools are run by local councils, others are run as academies or free schools.


These are state-funded schools that operate independently of local authorities and are Charitable Trusts. A majority of secondary schools in the maintained sector now have academy status, but only a minority of primary schools. 

Academies are typically non-selective, but the school can remain selective when it converts if it was previously. They also have certain freedoms which are not generally applicable to other schools. For example, they can set their own pay and conditions for staff; opt not to follow the national curriculum; change the length of school terms and adjust the timings of the school day.

Academies do have to follow certain statutes, however, around exclusions, admissions and special educational needs. The government encourages academies to join others within Multi Academy Trusts (MATs). Academies have a contract and funding agreement with the Secretary of State,

Free schools

Free schools are an extension to the academy programme. They are new, state-funded schools set up through a specific application process, and are usually run by groups such as universities, employers and charities.

They are legally banned from being academically selective, but, like academies, they can set their own curriculum, pay and school day and term lengths.

Faith schools

Faith schools can be any type of school – state, academy, free, or independent. The thing that sets them apart is that they are tied to a particular faith. Currently, around one third of state-funded schools in England have a faith designation, such as Christian, Muslim, Jewish etc.

If a faith school is a state school, it will follow the national curriculum, though they have some freedom around what is taught in religious education. They also have some freedom around admissions: they must offer a child a place if they have one, but if they are oversubscribed, they can prioritise students according to their faith.

Their staffing policies may also use faith-based criteria.

Grammar schools

Grammar schools are state-funded secondary schools that select students according to their academic ability. At the age of 11, pupils sit a test (known as the '11-plus') and are accepted or rejected based on their results. A few local authorities, such as Kent and Buckinghamshire, are mainly selective, with a few others partially selective. However, a significant majority of local authorities are non-selective.

Different schools and areas adopt different entrance exams and admissions criteria, and children in some places may sit multiple exams. Some grammar schools also have academy status.

Independent schools

Independent or private schools are not funded by the state, but rather charge fees for pupils to attend. They may be academically selective or not, and are either profit-making or have charity status. If they have charity status they must demonstrate public benefit, for example by offering bursaries or by running or sponsoring an academy.

Independent schools are mostly selective and have Common Entry Examinations (often referred to as CE) which pupils sit at the age of 11 or 13. These are set by the Independent Schools Examinations Board. They do not have to follow the national curriculum and may be inspected by Ofsted, the Independent Schools Inspectorate or the School Inspection Service.

There are also some private schools which specialise in teaching children with special educational needs.

Special schools

Special schools are state-funded and cater for pupils aged 11 and older with special educational needs (SEN). They usually specialise in one of the four areas of SEN:

  • Communication and interaction
  • Cognition and learning
  • Social, emotional and mental health
  • Sensory and physical needs.

Specialist schools

From 1993, state-funded secondary schools could apply to the Department for Education to be designated centres of excellence in their chosen specialism, such as performing arts. Under the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, specialist schools are permitted to select up to 10% of their pupil intake on the basis of "aptitude" for the specialism subject. In practice, very few do.

Studio schools

Studio schools are a type of free school. They tend to be small schools – usually with around 300 pupils or less – delivering mainstream qualifications through project-based learning, in which they are taught using real-life situations.

Students work with local employers and a personal coach – following a curriculum which is designed to give them the skills and qualifications they need either in the workplace or to take up further education.

University Technical Colleges (UTCs)

UTCs are an additional type of free school, which take students from the age of 14 to 19, and specialise in the teaching of Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects. The idea is that they combine technical, practical and academic learning.

Each UTC is sponsored by a local university and an employer, or sometimes a further education college. The curriculum is designed by the university and employers, with a big focus on preparing students for the working world. They also provide work experience for students, and generally have a longer school day.

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