The education system has undergone many changes in recent times and there are now many different types of schools available for parents and teachers to pick from.

However, with various labels such as academies, free schools, maintained schools and independents; it can be difficult to understand exactly what the differences are.

Here’s a rundown of the main features of the various types of educational institution and how they differ from each other.

Academies, free schools and academy converters

Despite the differences in name, all of the above are considered types of academy, which means they are funded by the state but retain independent status. They must meet specified requirements and are held accountable for their performance through a legally-binding ‘funding agreement’.

There are however some marginal differences between them all, despite the fact they are treated the same in law.

Free schools: They are newly-formed state school but this could include independent schools who have gained state school status for the first time. Formed by community groups, teachers, parents, educational charities or universities, there must be parental demand for the school to be created and no profit must be made from its running.

Free schools are not subject to the local authority but instead are bound by a funding agreement with the government. This is obtained by putting forward a two stage proposal, the second part of which must be a business case. The latter must be able to clearly demonstrate the need for the particular provision being proposed and the demand from parents for it to be created.

Traditional academies: These are usually formed by taking state schools which are performing badly and handing them to a new provider to run. Businessmen, educational charities, universities, or colleges can all take responsibility for an academy but to do so they must form a charity and ensure no profit is made from the venture. Similarly to free schools, academies are subject to the terms within a funding agreement and not accountable to the local authority.

However, unlike free schools, traditional academies are formed by the Department of Education acting as facilitator between schools which are failing and academy providers. No business case has to be approved, nor parental demand demonstrated.

Academy converters: Highly performing state schools achieving exceptional results can ask to be freed from the local authority in order to gain more autonomy and independence. The school governing body signs a funding agreement with the government which in turn frees them from the local authority rules and regulations. Any school can apply to the government but those with an outstanding record will be fast-tracked through the process.

An academy is a relatively new term adopted in the UK to describe a variety of different types of school that want financial independence from the local authority

Maintained schools

The vast majority of state schools are the responsibility of the local authority who ‘maintain’ them and oversee their performance. Maintained schools are obliged to follow the national curriculum and teachers receive the national pay rates and conditions.

Whilst all maintained schools meet the above description, there are some small differences between them.

Community schools: These are run and administered entirely by the local authority, who also owns the land and grounds. All staff are appointed by the local authority and they also decide on the admissions process.

Foundation and trust schools: These types of state school have a governing body who are responsible for the admissions process and the appointment of all staff. Either the governing body or a charity owns the grounds and building.

Voluntary Aided schools: Also known as VA schools, these are usually faith schools that have a governing body that set out the admissions criteria and recruit staff. The buildings and land are almost always owned by a religious organisation or charity. A variant on this are Voluntary Controlled Schools (VC schools) who are run by the local authority who also set the admissions criteria and recruit staff. However, they are still faith schools and the land and buildings are owned by a religious organisation.

Other types of school

Independent schools: Any school which is not reliant on either the local authority or government for funding or governance is known as an Independent. They can encompass a wide range of different types of institution ranging from those dating back to the Middle Ages, to new schools set up by charities or businesses. Although they are not subject to any binding agreement with the government, they are still regulated to a small degree and are inspected by various organisations.

Independent schools receive their funding from a variety of means; school fees, endowments and gifts and have a governing body who are elected.

Grammar schools: Associated with UK teaching and a rather outdated image, the term grammar school is simply used to describe any institution which bases its admissions policy on academic ability. The term ‘grammar school’ does not imply any particular type of funding and can even be maintained schools.

Some independent schools offer bursaries and scholarships to help children from less affluent households attend

Main differences

As well as the different features in funding, accountability and administration, there are some differences in what the school is obliged to do and the decisions they can make.

When it comes to lessons, Maintained Schools are obligated to follow the National Curriculum although they are allowed to focus on certain subjects providing the basic requirements are met. Academies must teach English, Maths and Science and ensure they provide a ‘broad and balanced’ curriculum. Independent Schools must provide pupils with a ‘linguistic, mathematical, scientific, human and social, physical and aesthetic and creative education’.

Independent Schools are not required to provide assessments i.e./examinations such as GCSEs but in practice the majority do.  Independent Schools are also not obliged to meet the national floor targets unlike Maintained Schools and Academies.

In Maintained Schools, the performance of teachers is measured and overseen by the local authority but all other types of school are able to evaluate their teachers as they see fit. However, in Free Schools, teachers must also fulfil the Ofsted requirements.

The length and hours of the school day is set out in Main Schools whilst all other types are free to make their own arrangements. VA and VC schools can sometimes be permitted to make a change but the process is lengthy and complicated.


There are many other differences between the various types of school which can be found in the UK today but the above gives a brief insight into how they are run and who is responsible. As a general rule, Maintained Schools offer the least flexibility as they must adhere to local authority rules and standards but on the plus side, they offer consistency. Independent Schools offer the greatest flexibility and the least amount of inspections and regulations but provide a very different teaching experience. What type of school to work in depends on your personal preferences and priorities but the above information should help you to understand what each is likely to involve and how they are set up.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here