An <i>IoS</i> guide to the strange world of education, education, education

Know the difference between an academy and a free school? Heard of a pupil premium? And what's the best way to read league tables? As parents struggle with school applications, Richard Garner plots a way through the minefield
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A time traveller, or indeed any ordinary mortal who has lived abroad for a few years, would be bewildered if they landed in England today and had to negotiate a secondary school place for their child. It would be a case of, "It's education, Jim, but not as we know it." Here are the questions and answers which would talk them through the transformed system.

There are three secondary schools in my area. One is an academy, the second a local authority comprehensive and the third a Catholic church school. Oh, and they say an independent "free" school is to open next year. Which should I choose for my daughter?

It's up to you. That's parental choice. But, to give you guidance, first check on the background of the academy. There are two types. Under Labour, in the main they replaced struggling schools in disadvantaged areas and were sponsored by charities, businesses and universities. The new breed of academies opening this term are schools that are rated as "outstanding" by inspectors and which the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, believes would flourish even more if given independence from local authorities in order to run their own affairs.

What is the difference between an academy and a local authority-maintained state school?

The academy has more freedom. It doesn't have to use local authority services. It can buy them in from elsewhere if they're better or cheaper. It also does not have to follow the national curriculum and can set its own structure for teachers' pay.

Does it get more money?

Yes, if you talk to teachers and local councils. No, if you talk to ministers. An academy is funded directly from central government, getting – on average – the £4,100 spent on a state school pupil's education. Under Labour, which started the programme in 2002, the first academies were in brand new, state-of-the-art buildings costing up to £40m a time. Controversially, they get extra funding based on what a local authority would have spent on providing services to them. This is where the extra comes in, as costs such as the value of the time the chief officers would have allocated to them are thrown into this equation – leading to accusations this is overgenerous.

OK, I've checked out the academy now. It seems it was a failing secondary school that has been given a facelift and brand new buildings and is now run by a bunch of hedge fund managers. How come?

Don't worry about the hedge fund manager business. They have set up an education charity called Ark, which sponsors academies. The school will have a professional educational administration. It was always more likely to be one of Labour's academies – there are about 170 of them. Only 34 "outstanding" schools have been turned in academies under Mr Gove's programme – considered by some to have been a setback for him, as he had said there would be more than 1,000. However, a further 142 are expected to transfer during the year.

I'm unsure about the academy, though. So now what do I do to make sure I get Endellion the best education possible?

You can look at the performance tables that list every school's A-level and GCSE results. They will tell you which is the best-performing in terms of exam passes. However, you might like to look at what is called their "value-added" score. This looks at what the pupils were expected to achieve upon arrival and whether the school has improved on that or not. It tells you more about the teaching quality than the raw exam scores. A score of 1,000 is average. The higher the score, the better.

Right, I've done that. The one that comes out best on both scores is the Catholic school. Should I go there?

Can I turn the tables on you before I reply? Are you a Catholic?

An atheist. Does it help that my parents were Catholics?

The school should reserve some place for non-faith children. The Government has been trying to persuade faith schools to do so. Otherwise, it might be time to bite the bullet and find religion.

And if I won't go down that road?

I'm afraid it's unlikely that you will get a place. If there are any places left for non-faith children, they will be very sought after.

So that leaves the comprehensive and the academy. I'm a bit worried about the academy, though. The results of the school it replaced were very low. On the other hand, I heard a parent refer to the comprehensive as "bog standard". I want a bit more than that. What about this "free" school?

The first "free" schools won't open until next September – and there are 16 in the pipeline. They are officially classified as academies in the Department for Education's lexicon – and will enjoy the same freedoms. The main difference between them and academies is they are all new and can be started up by parents, faith groups or teachers. They will tend to be smaller. They don't have private sponsor,s but get their money straight from the Government, like academies. The first 16 include seven with religious connections – including two Jewish, one Hindu and one Sikh school, two run by Ark and one Montessori school, using its progressive teaching methods. There's one that specialises in the classics and another run by the son of a bus driver in Bradford who is a Cambridge science graduate. He says he is dedicated to improving the life chances of pupils in the area where he lives.

What would happen if I moved to another part of the UK?

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have not adopted the academies or "free" schools legislation. They have faith schools, but Wales and Scotland's secondary schools are comprehensive. In Northern Ireland, the schools are divided on religious grounds, with only a handful of integrated schools. Oh, and they still have the 11-plus although there are moves to abolish it.

Anything else I should bear in mind before deciding on moving?

There are constant complaints over funding in Wales. It didn't quite get the largesse in extra resources that England did as a result of Tony Blair's education, education, education mantra. In Scotland, they are worried that exam results have plateaued during the past decade – and even went down this year. No grade inflation there, then.

I think I'll stay here, but the "free" school sounds too much of a risk. If it had been open for a couple of years and was doing well, I might have opted for it. So it looks like the bog-standard comprehensive. Isn't this all supposed to be about choice?

That's a common misunderstanding. The answer is that you have the freedom to choose to put your child down for any of these schools, but, in the end, the choice lies with the school over whom they admit. Of course, they have to abide by an admissions code, which means they can't select by academic ability. Only a a grammar school can do that.

One other thing. I heard Mr Gove wants schools to give preference to taking in youngsters who are getting free school meals. Someone on a radio phone-in was saying how dreadful it was that middle-class people who paid their taxes would be ignored while the oiks who scrounged on benefits would get top priority. What's that all about?

Mr Gove has said he is minded to allow his academies and "free" schools to give priority to pupils on free school meals, in admissions. He's not ordering them to, though. There is also the question of the "pupil premium" – the big education concession to the Liberal Democrats. Under that, schools would get extra cash for every disadvantaged youngster they take in. We don't know how much it is yet, however. The Lib Dems said in their election manifesto they would spend £2.5bn on it – ensuring an extra £2,500 per child. It is thought that the Chancellor, George Osborne, is unlikely to be so generous.

So they are giving preference to the poor and letting the rest of us go hang?

At present, the odds are stacked up against youngsters from disadvantaged homes. House prices in the vicinity of a high-performing school soar, and therefore poorer families cannot live in the catchment area. The Government's plans are aimed at giving youngsters from poorer families a better chance of getting into a top-performing school.

Thanks for that. While you're here, can I ask a few more things?

Happy to oblige.

My brother's son is just about to start studying for GCSEs, but the school says they're putting him in for some international exam instead. What does that mean?

They're probably talking about the International GCSE. It's much in demand by independent schools which say it stretches youngsters more and prepares them better for A-level study. It's designed along the lines of the old O-level, with no coursework and more attention paid to the traditional end-of-year exam. Mr Gove has just given state schools the freedom to use it. Previously, they couldn't get funding for it.

So is there a problem with GCSEs?

Last month, Mick Waters, who used to be in charge of the national curriculum, claimed the exam system was "diseased, almost corrupt". He said he had overheard certain exam board officers trying to persuade headteachers that their exams were easier than their rivals'. The schools would get better results for exam league tables if they chose these. However, it is worth stressing that, at the moment, any move away from the GCSE to its international equivalent is limited in the main to English, maths and science – not other subjects.

What about A-levels?

Again, Mr Gove has legislated for choice. Until the coalition Government took office, state schools could get funding for A-levels and for the International Baccalaureate, which offers a broader range of study with seven compulsory subjects for sixth-formers. Now Mr Gove has opened the system up to include the Cambridge Pre-U, which, again, is a more traditional exam with more emphasis on end-of-term examinations rather than coursework. However, A-levels have changed – the A* grade was introduced for the first time this summer, as well as more open-ended questions design to test pupils' critical thinking skills. Mr Gove has said he wants to review them again, on the basis that universities should become more involved in setting the questions for them. After all, the exam is supposed to be designed to help them to choose the brightest talent for their most popular courses. The A-level is not dead yet by any means.

Is there no end to the changes the Government wants to introduce?

No. Although Mr Gove has said he want to introduce one-off changes at the beginning of the coalition's time in government, to allow the system to bed down later. He says he appreciates how difficult it is for teachers to have to cope with a constant diet of reform. Before they reach that plateau, though, there will be an education White Paper which will outline some more reforms.

What sort of things will that include?

Well, for a start he wants to introduce a national reading test for six-year-olds, to help teachers to see how their children are coping with the basics. His argument is that it can pave the way for early intervention to help out if things are going wrong. Oh, and he is reviewing the national curriculum tests for 11-year-olds. You may recall that headteachers and teachers boycotted them this year, with the result that they had to be scrapped in about a quarter of schools. The argument was that the high-stakes nature of the tests – they were being used to determine schools' rankings in primary performance tables – led to many schools merely coaching their pupils for them instead of giving them an all-round education. The result was the curriculum became boring and repetitive, turning pupils off school. Mr Gove has said the tests are here to stay, but he's happy to look at their content. The National Association of Head Teachers has now called off its boycott.

So, after all these changes, will we have the world-class education system that everybody has been talking about?

We shall see. There is one more factor that has to be added into the equation.

What's that?

The public spending cuts. Headteachers are already warning that subject options may have to be reduced if teachers are axed. There is a fear that the army of classroom assistants – recruited under Labour to help to free up teachers, so that they could concentrate on their teaching – may disappear. But that, as they say, is another story. All will be revealed next week.