As the name suggests, independent schools in the UK do not belong to the state-run system of education. If you are interested in how schooling in general works, please read our article on state schools in the UK first.
Unlike so-called “maintained” institutions, which are funded and supervised by the Local Council, independent schools in the UK raise most of their funding by tuition fees. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that they cater only to an estimated 7% of the country’s student population.
In the past decade, the UK’s official education system has also produced new school types that have some greater measure of independence from government regulations. Don’t be surprised if you hear the expression “free school” or “academy” during your search for a suitable school.
These new kinds of schools are not actually independent schools in the UK. They still report to the Department of Education and are subject to official inspections. But they don’t fit the model of a normal “maintained school” in several other respects.
While part of the state system of education, an academy is not controlled by the Local Council. It is a self-governing institution which receives its funding partly from the central government, partly from private sponsorship. Academies have to follow the National Curriculum only in core subjects (English, math, science). They can set their own conditions and pay for teaching staff as well.
By now, there are nearly 4,000 academies in the UK, most of them secondary schools for students aged 11 to 16. Originally, they were intended to replace struggling inner-city schools. However, there are also some former independent schools in the UK that converted to the academy model when parents were no longer able to raise tuition fees for their kids.
In addition to academies, you may come across “free schools” throughout the United Kingdom. They are funded by taxation, academically non-selective, and do not require paying any tuition fees. However, they are free from control though the Local Council. Instead, they are run by non-profit trusts, like parent groups, charities, and religious associations. As of September 2016, there are around 200 free schools across the United Kingdom.
Free schools might be of particular interest to expat parents whose cultural and religious background is not yet covered by existing independent schools in the UK. Though older private schools are frequently associated with specific faiths, most of them are affiliated with Christian denominations, especially Catholicism or the Anglican Church. However, among the newer faith schools run according to the free school model, you’ll find, for instance, schools for Jewish or Hindu students.
Truly independent schools are private institutions. Since they don’t receive any funding from the British government, they don’t have to follow the National Curriculum, either. They are not under supervision by the Local Council, nor do they receive any visit from school inspectors hired by the Department of Education (except in Scotland).
Instead, private schools are managed by an elected board of directors and funded through tuition fees, charitable trusts, and individual donations. They set their own standards for academic achievement and pastoral care. Plenty of independent schools in the UK belong to the Independent School Council (ISC). The ISC has developed a shared framework for academic standards and carries out regular inspections in about 1,200 private schools.
Many of the over 2,000 independent schools in the UK are fairly selective in their choice of students. Children have to meet certain academic requirements and attend personal interviews. Older kids aged 11 to 13 usually have to sit a special entrance exam for private secondary schools, e.g. the so-called Common Entrance Exams. Talents in other areas – like music or sports – are also taken into consideration.
Most importantly, families need to be able to afford the tuition fees, in addition to the normal cost of living. On average, a year at an independent day school costs about £11,000, while an independent boarding school requires the even heftier sum of £23,000 per annum. Selected students receive financial assistance through scholarships, though – also known as “means-tested bursaries”.
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