What are the different types of schools?
In the UK, the school system is largely split into state schools and independent schools; in these categories are specific types of schools. However, what are state and independent schools, and what’s the difference between the school types within those categories? Most importantly, which school is right for your child?
In this blog, we explore the types of schools, the features that differentiate them, and the important factors parents should consider when deciding on their child’s education.
What are state schools?
State schools are schools which are funded by the government. As these schools are publicly funded, parents do not have to pay fees for their children to attend. In the UK, over 80% of children attend a state school.
State schools are either funded wholly or partly through taxes, with some state schools accepting funding through other areas such as fundraising or, in the case of faith schools, religious groups. The majority of state school funding either comes through local authorities, multi-academy trusts, or directly from the government in the form of academies.
It is important to note that every state school is different and has unique strengths, weaknesses, subjects, extracurricular activities, cultures, and leader-board rankings. For this reason, choosing a state school for your child is not as simple as choosing a subcategory. However, understanding the subcategories of state schools and the fundamental differences in the way they run and teach, can help parents begin to make that important decision.
The eight types of state school
Local Authority (LA)-maintained state schools
An LA-maintained, or local-authority-maintained, state school is funded through the local authority. This means that the local authority or council in an area receives funding from the government and then distributes it to the state schools maintained by them. Prior to the increase of academies, free schools and multi-academy trusts, local-authority-maintained schools were the norm for secondary schools. However, over time, there have become fewer and fewer LA-maintained schools due to the rise of academisation – the process of an LA-maintained school becoming an academy.
As these schools are maintained by the local authority of an area, they must follow the National Curriculum and follow the school schedule set by their local authority for half-term and term dates.
Academies are state schools which receive their funding directly from the Department for Education. This can either come in the form of a single academy, where the funding goes straight to their school, or an academy as part of a multi-academy trust, where the trust receives funding and distributes it to their schools.
Unlike LA-maintained schools, academies have the freedom to either adopt the National Curriculum or set their own. However, when inspected by Ofsted, academy schools have the responsibility of showing that their curriculum is equal or superior to the National Curriculum. As a result, many still use the same curriculum as LA-maintained schools.
Academies that are part of multi-academy trusts [MATs] keep the freedom of the academy system while still having connections with other schools, like schools under local authorities. This system allows for leadership responsibilities to be specialised across the trust, providing teachers with more time to spend in the classroom.
The main difference between an academy and a free school is its origin. Largely, academies are converted from previously LA-maintained state schools. Free schools run similarly to academies but are set up and sponsored by charities, universities, and other groups rather than originating as local authority maintained. A local authority can work in partnership with a free school, so long as they represent less than 20% of the board of representatives.
Like academies, free schools can create their own curriculum, and this has led to the creation of popular subcategories such as UTCs and studio schools.
Funded by a university, university technical colleges (or UTCs) teach the subjects learners need to know by law, such as English and Science, but focus on more technical subjects such as engineering and mechanics for their other subject offerings. This is done to prepare learners for practical careers in the workplace. UTCs also offer more practical and vocational courses in place of traditional academic subjects.
Like UTCs, studio schools shape their curriculum around the skills necessary for the modern workplace. For this reason, studio schools usually have longer teaching hours to mimic the office environment (9am to 5pm), and take small cohorts of students. Studio schools usually have a wider offering of practical and vocational subjects and courses than conventional state schools.
The distinction between a standard state school and a faith school is that faith schools are partially funded by a religious group, much like academies are funded by the Department for Education or a trust. As such, the culture and teachings of these schools will be affected by the religion that funds them. There are faith schools for a wide variety of religions, but the most common faith schools are Catholic schools and Church of England schools.
Unlike academies and free schools, faith schools are required to teach the National Curriculum. It is also important to note that while faith schools are permitted to teach only the faith of their school, many choose to teach a wide range of religious education just as standard state schools do. This is to ensure learners receive a diverse cultural education.
Grammar schools, unlike the state schools mentioned so far, are selective. This means they select learners based on an exam or exam result. Usually, only the top 25% (or for some super-selective schools, the top 10%) of learners are allowed to attend the school. This top percentage is taken from an assessment taken at the end of primary school, most commonly the eleven-plus.
As of 2022, there are only a handful of locations in the UK that still contain grammar schools, such as Lincolnshire, Kent, and Northern Ireland.
Because the students at these schools comprise the top 25% of primary students, the grammar school curriculum is especially challenging and stretches talented learners. Students learn alongside other high-scoring learners, which can result in more focused lessons and, in theory, better grades overall.
However, research from the Independent in 2014 has shown that grammar schools make no difference to progress than standard state schools in general. The differences in progress depend more on individual schools rather than the type of state school. There are grammar schools which are weaker in terms of progress, and there are standard LA-maintained schools and academies that provide excellent outcomes for their learners.
Non-selective or all-ability schools were, from 1944 to the 1970s, referred to as secondary moderns and were the counterpart to grammar schools: learners who did not achieve the marks needed for grammar school attended a secondary modern instead. Though they are not referred to as secondary moderns today, there are still more than 140 schools in the UK which act in their place. The results of these schools are judged with the acknowledgement that the top 25% of the cohort has been removed, unlike comprehensive schools which have a wide range of prior attainment.
While there has been a shift away from the initial implications of these schools since the 1970s, schools which serve this purpose today still represent a distinction between “gifted” learners and “non-gifted” learners. Students who aim to attend grammar schools and do not meet the requirements may end up feeling “less than” by the time they have entered Year 7, which can affect them throughout their academic career. This is an important consideration to make when deciding on the right school for your child.
What are independent schools?
While state schools are funded through the Department for Education, independent schools are funded by the parents and guardians of the learners who attend. This can range from a relatively low fee to upwards of £40,000 a term depending on the school.
As these schools are funded by parents, independent schools can offer more funding per child who attends. This means a wider range of extracurricular activities, increased support, smaller class sizes and personalised teaching.
Like academies and free schools, independent schools also do not have to follow the National Curriculum. Though learners sit the same exams as students in state schools, independent schools are free to achieve their results as they wish, alongside a regulatory board which ensures teaching at the school is strong.
Some independent schools also offer boarding facilities. This makes independent schools a more viable option for learners coming from abroad: learners can attend schools in the UK even if their parents or guardians live elsewhere as they are cared for by the school, allowing children from across the world to access education in the UK should they be able to afford it.
Generally, learners who attend independent schools achieve higher results in their GCSE and A-level exams. However, research on the attainment gap suggests that the funding of independent schools may not be the only reason for higher results.
The two types of independent school
Public school is a somewhat outdated term for an independent school. When schools were first granted independence from the government (hence the term independent), there were a handful of exclusive schools which became “public” first. Today, these schools, such as Eton and Winchester, are considered some of the most exclusive independent schools on offer.
Despite the origin of the name, public schools and independent schools are now terms which are used interchangeably, and many independent schools refer to themselves as public schools.
Private schools are what most people think of when they imagine an independent school: a school for fee-paying parents to send their children. Many independent schools offer scholarships for gifted and talented learners, whether that be in sports, a musical instrument, or an academic subject, helping to make the fees more affordable for parents.
While some private schools follow the state school system, some follow an entirely different school structure; some begin their secondary education at the age of thirteen rather than eleven. Rather than being structured as a primary school (ages 4 to 11) and secondary school (ages 11 to 16, or 18/19 with a sixth form), these schools are formed of a pre-preparatory school and a preparatory school (from ages 4 to 11 or 13), followed by an independent secondary school (from either age 11 or 13 until age 18).
A small number of independent schools, usually in and around London where independent education is more sought-after, are selective and accept students after the completion of the eleven-plus or thirteen-plus.
What are special schools?
While many state and independent schools have their own special educational facilities, there are instances where your child might need more specialist care to ensure they receive the best education possible. In these situations, it is sometimes better for children with special educational needs to attend specific special schools, which can be either state-funded, partially state-funded, or independent.
The decision between mainstream education and special school education for your child is a difficult one. To inform your decision, read more about the types of special schools, the differences between them and whether they might be right for your child.
Factors parents should consider when choosing a school
One important indicator of the quality of a school is its Ofsted rating. This rating gives insight into the strength of a school’s curriculum, the safeguarding of the school, the special educational needs provisions, the school’s culture and more. Generally, a school which receives a “good” or “outstanding” rating from Ofsted can be trusted to provide high-quality education with a strong leadership structure and a rich curriculum.
Quality of teaching
To make your decision even trickier, the type of school your child attends is no indication of the quality of teaching. Some people assume that grammar schools and independent schools have superior teaching. However, though these schools may have higher attaining learners and more funding per student, the quality of teaching can still differ from school to school.
The best way to find out if the style of teaching a school offers suits your child is to visit for an open day, have a conversation with staff and senior leaders, check the school’s Ofsted rating and position on the school leaderboard, and use these factors to make your own decision.
If your child is attending an LA-maintained state school or an academy, their acceptance into the school is largely dependent on proximity. This is not the case for grammar schools and independent schools: for independent boarding schools, learners from across the globe are able to attend.
If you are seeking a state school education for your child, you may be limited to the schools within your catchment area.
Every school will offer different extracurricular activities. If there is a particular sport or club your child is passionate about, it might be wise to find a school which focuses on offering that activity.
Fee-paying schools and specialist free schools are likely to have much smaller class sizes than mainstream state schools. This does have an impact on the level of differentiation a teacher can offer to each child. If the size of class your child is with is an important factor in your decision, it may be worth considering whether the price of a smaller cohort is within your budget, and whether this price is worth the impact it will have on your child.
Ultimately, most parents in the UK do not have the option to send their child to a fee-paying school, especially if they have multiple children. If you fall into this category, then the options you have for your child’s education are slightly reduced. Despite this, there is still a wide range of state school options for your child. Additionally, the fees for some independent schools can be reduced through scholarships if your child has a particular gift or talent, such as with a musical aptitude scholarship.
As well as this, even parents who have the means to send their child to an independent school may choose a state education over an independent one. We expand more on the pros and cons of state education versus independent education in our full blog.
Many of the schools listed above can diverge from the National Curriculum if they choose and introduce more specialised subjects. However, many schools which can diversify their curriculum choose not to, as the National Curriculum has shown to be an effective way of educating learners. If you’re keen for your child to be taught through an alternative curriculum, choosing an academy, a free school or an independent school might not necessarily be the correct choice for you.