Structure and Governance



Schools in England can be categorised in many different ways. At the highest level, schools can be either categorised into maintained schools or academies, which are independent but publicly funded schools, or independent schools, which are fee-paying. A standard note for MPs issued in January from the House of Commons library has a useful overview of the school system.

Schools can be further categorised into mainstream schools, pupil referral units (PRUs) or special schools. Schools are also categorised by age and in some cases gender. Primary schools are for pupils aged 5–11 and can be divided into infant (5-7) and junior (7-11) schools. Secondary schools are generally for 11–18 year olds. The compulsory school age is from 5 to 16. Now 17 year olds must be in education or full or part time training and from September 2015 this will be required for all young people to the age of 18. There are also middle schools, which take children from first schools, and pupils in these schools generally go on to comprehensive upper schools. They cover varying age ranges between 8 and 14. Depending on their age range, they are deemed either primary or secondary. Sixth form colleges and FE colleges take pupils from 16, but now they can admit pupils from 14. A few academies are all age. There are 39 state boarding schools in England, most of which also take day pupils.

There are other categorisations in terms of the governance and funding of schools. Community schools are funded by the local authority, which owns the school site and employs the staff. Voluntary Aided schools have a foundation or trust, which is usually of religious character. The school owns the school site and employs staff. They are funded via the local authority. Any maintained school – primary, secondary or special school (but not maintained nursery school) – can become a trust (or foundation) school. Trust schools remain local authority-maintained. Trust schools are state-funded foundation schools that receive extra support (usually non-monetary) from a charitable trust made up of partners working together for the benefit of the school. Trust schools also own their premises and employ the staff.

Academies are similar to trust schools in that they own their premises and employ the staff but are funded directly by the government and have a funding agreement with the Secretary of State. They are legally not maintained schools. Academies and maintained schools are designated together as publicly-funded schools or state-funded schools.

Academies were originally set up as all-ability, state-funded schools established and managed by sponsors from a wide range of backgrounds, including high-performing schools and colleges, universities, individual philanthropists, businesses, the voluntary sector and the faith communities. The first Academies opened in 2002. Initially most Academies replaced underperforming schools, while others were new schools in areas which needed extra school places. They were required to have a specialism in one or more subject areas and, in line with other schools with a specialism, they can admit up to 10 per cent of pupils each year on the basis of their aptitude for the specialism concerned. The specialisms are: physical education (PE) or sports, the performing arts, the visual arts, modern foreign languages, design and technology, and information technology. From the start, academies were not required to teach the National Curriculum – their curriculum had to be broad and balanced and they were required to teach the core subjects and carry out KS3 assessments in English, Maths and Science.

There are several types of academies, for example converter academies, which are maintained schools that have converted to become academies, and sponsor academies, which generally have been schools that have converted as they have been in difficulties for some time. Some of these sponsor academies are in chains with more than one academy in a trust (Multi Academy Trusts).

Since the passing of the Academies Act 2010 the expectation from the Government is that all schools become academies. They are not now required to specialise. All schools which are outstanding or good have been encouraged to become converter academies. Selective schools which become academies can remain selective. Independent (i.e. fee paying) schools can become academies but have to end selection. A Commission appointed by the RSA with support from Pearson and other organisations looked at the effect of increasing numbers of schools becoming academies and made several recommendations for changes.

Free Schools are a type of academy set up by proposers including “charities, universities, businesses, educational groups, teachers or parents” funded similarly to academies. Academies, including free schools, do not have to employ qualified teachers. The conditions under which academies operate can vary according to the funding agreements drawn up when they became an academy. There are currently 256 free schools in operation (primary, secondary and special) and another 156 due to open from 2015.

University Technical Colleges (UTCs) are academies for 14-19-year-olds, offering technical courses and work-related learning, combined with academic studies. UTCs are sponsored by a local university and employers. There are also around 300 publicly-funded studio schools for a small number of 14-19 year-olds, “delivering mainstream qualifications through project based learning”.

Some schools are designated as teaching schools with a role in leadership and school improvement.

The middle tier

There are 152 Local Authorities in England with responsibility for ensuring sufficient school places. Their role is changing fundamentally as more schools, in particular secondary schools, become academies. Local authorities have expressed concern about their ability to provide sufficient school places.

Local authorities are required then to appoint Directors of Children’s Services and Children’s Trusts involving all local bodies involved with children. From April 2013 local authorities and partners have been required to have a local Health and Wellbeing Board to identify health and wellbeing priorities and coordinate action to improve health and address health inequalities for adults and children. Local authorities may take different approaches about how these two bodies work together.

A report from the RSA examined the role for a “middle tier” between schools and the DfE as more schools become academies.

Regional school commissioners (RSCs) have been responsible for approving new academies and intervening in underperforming academies and free schools in their area since September 2014. The eight RSCs are accountable to the Schools Commissioner. They are supported by a board of six to eight academy headteachers and other sector leaders.

National Level

At national level, apart from the Department for Education, which is responsible for education and children’s services, there are several other publicly-funded bodies that carry out education key functions. These are:

The Skills Funding Agency (SFA) is another agency, sponsored by the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, funding skills training for further education (FE) in England.


In 2013 The Education Select Committee published an extensive report on the role of governing bodies, making several recommendations, for example the need to improve clerking arrangements, recruitment and support for governors. The variation in school structures in England is reflected in their governance arrangements. Several different categories of governors can be found on most governing bodies, some elected, some appointed - parent, staff, community, foundation, partnership and local authority. Governing bodies are free to determine their own size and membership but recent regulations require governing bodies of maintained schools to reconstitute by September 2015 with a minimum of seven governors. The regulations also set the proportion of governors in each category that the different types of school should have, for example limiting the number of local authority appointed governors to one.

Governance arrangements for academies are set in their funding agreements. Academies as well as having a governing body may have a trust, which may include sponsor representatives or may be an overarching trust covering all the academies in the chain. The DfE Governors’ Handbook sets out procedures for governing bodies.


The latest version of the School Admissions Code came into force in December 2014. The School Admission Appeals Code has been in force since February 2012. The admissions criteria of schools are set by the admission authority; for community schools this is the local authority and for all others the governing body. Parents are given notice of the school places they are being offered on National Offer Day; for secondary places that is March 1 or the next working day and for primary parents April 16 or the next working day.


The Statistical Volume Education and training in the UK is produced near the end of the year. It contains much of the information about the structure of education in the UK in terms of numbers of students and types of schools.

A Statistical First Release published in June 2015 on schools, pupils and their characteristics includes a wide range of data, including information on both the number and types of schools and pupils, and tables showing the number of pupils by age, gender, free school meal eligibility, ethnicity, first language, and gifted and talented status. It also includes a range of class size information. Included with this publication is data on cross local authority border movement of pupils.

This latest release shows, for example, that in January 2015:

  • There were 8.4 million pupils enrolled in schools in England, i.e. including state-funded and independent schools. This is a 1.3 per cent growth in pupil numbers since January 2014. This increase is larger than in previous years and largely due to a 2.1 per cent increase in the number of pupils in state-funded primary schools. In the first rise since 2010 the number of pupils in state-funded secondary schools also rose by 0.1 per cent.
  • The percentage of children in state-funded provision eligible for free school meals fell from 16.3 per cent in January 2014 to 15.2 per cent.
  • 61.4 per cent of state-funded secondary schools were academies (including free schools, university technical colleges and studio schools), compared to 56.9 per cent in January 2014; 14.6 per cent of state-funded primary schools were academies and free schools in January 2015 compared to 10.7 per cent in January 2014.
  • There has been an increase in the number of large primary schools. The number of state-funded primary schools with more than 800 pupils has increased to 87 from 77 in January 2014. This represents 0.5 per cent of the total number of state-funded primary schools.

A Statistical Release in February 2015 listed the capacity of schools and gives forecasts of pupil numbers for several years ahead, for 2018-2019 academic year at primary level and 2020-2021 academic year at secondary level.

Later in the year, after parents have been through the admission process, statistics are released showing how many parents got the school place they preferred. This year’s statistics showed, for example, that the proportion of applicants who were offered a place at their highest preference secondary school had dropped to 85.2 per cent, down 1.5 percentage points from the 2013 figure of 86.7 per cent. If parents do not get the school which they wanted they can appeal. Statistics on appeals for each local authority are also published some time after the process. They show a wide variation both in the proportion of cases going to appeal and the proportion succeeding.

Current issues

In January 2015 The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee was critical of the DfE’s oversight of schools’ performance.

A report by the Education Select Committee into free schools and academies expressed some concerns and made several recommendations, for example: “The Government should spell out its vision for the future of schools in England, including the structures and underpinning principles that will be in place in the next five to ten years. Any future government will have to examine whether the existing dual system of oversight and intervention is beneficial.”

In February 2015 the Education Funding Agency published a review of appeals by parents to academies. Academies do not use the appeal panels of the local authority but set up their own Independent Appeals Panels (IAPs). The EFA reported that of the 94 IAP complaints investigated and concluded by 30 September 2014 just over a third were upheld or partially upheld.

In June 2015 the Education and Adoption Bill was published by the new Conservative government. It is currently going through Parliament. Its aim is to speed up the process by which some schools seen to be failing are forced to become academies by making opposition more difficult.

June 2015

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