What are Comprehensive And Foundation Schools? How Does It Work?

what is a comprehensive school
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As parents and students prepare to make school choices, understanding the fundamental characteristics and differences between comprehensive and foundation schools is essential. But, what is a comprehensive school and how does it differ from a foundation school?

In the United Kingdom, these two prominent models, comprehensive and foundation schools, play distinctive roles in the educational sector.

While parents compare the educational options for their children or wards in the UK, they need to understand the essence of comprehensive and foundation schools as a valuable starting point.

This article will discuss the fundamental aspects of comprehensive and foundation schools, highlighting their origins, key features, and the roles they play in providing education to students across the UK.

History Of Comprehensive And Foundation Schools

Comprehensive schools and foundation schools are two distinct types of educational institutions in the United Kingdom. Here’s a brief history of both:

Comprehensive Schools:

  • Comprehensive schools emerged in the 1960s and 1970s as a response to the perceived inequalities of the previous selective education system, which included grammar schools for academically inclined students and secondary modern schools for those deemed less academically able.
  • The comprehensive system aimed to provide a more inclusive education by admitting students of all abilities into the same school.
  • Comprehensive schools were designed to offer a broad curriculum and diverse extracurricular activities, to promote social integration and equal opportunities for all students.
  • This educational model has evolved over the years, and comprehensive schools continue to be a prevalent form of state-funded secondary education in the UK, serving a wide range of students.

Foundation Schools:

  • Foundation schools, on the other hand, have a different origin and history. They were introduced as part of the Education Reform Act of 1988.
  • Foundation schools have more autonomy and control over their finances, curriculum, and governance compared to other types of schools like community schools.
  • Many foundation schools are governed by a foundation or trust, which can include local organizations, religious groups, or educational charities.
  • This greater autonomy allows foundation schools to have more flexibility in decision-making, curriculum development, and management.
  • Foundation schools are publicly funded and open to all students, but they often have unique characteristics or specializations based on their governing foundation.

Comprehensive schools were established to create more inclusive and equal educational opportunities, while foundation schools were introduced later to provide increased autonomy and diversity in the education system. Both types of schools continue to play significant roles in the UK’s educational landscape.

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What are Comprehensive and Foundation Schools

Comprehensive and foundation schools represent some of the most prevalent educational institutions in the UK, offering equal educational opportunities to students in pursuit of a high-quality secondary education.

You may have attended one of these schools unknowingly, given that they make up around 3,000 of all secondary schools in England.

Fundamentally, comprehensive and foundation schools welcome students from all academic backgrounds, without regard to their previous scholastic achievements. Admission primarily hinges on a student’s residence or permanent address.

Foundation schools are primarily governed by their respective boards, with certain aspects falling under the purview of the Local Authority. Importantly, neither of these school types necessitates parental payment of school fees, although additional expenses like uniforms and stationery supplies may be incurred.

What are Comprehensive Schools?

A “comprehensive school,” often referred to simply as a “comprehensive,” typically denotes a secondary school catering to students aged approximately 11-16 or 11–18.

What sets comprehensives apart is their policy of admitting students without any selection based on academic achievement or aptitude, distinguishing them from “selective school” systems where admission primarily hinges on predefined criteria, usually related to academic performance.

In the context of England and Wales, comprehensive schools were initially introduced as state-funded experimental institutions during the 1940s, gradually gaining broader acceptance starting in 1965. They can either operate under the auspices of a local education authority or function as self-governing academies within a multi-academy trust.

Most secondary school students in England attend comprehensive schools, which encompass a diverse range of institutions, including academy schools, community schools, faith schools, foundation schools, free schools, studio schools, sixth form colleges, further education colleges, university technical colleges, state boarding schools, City Technology Colleges, and more.

What is a Foundation School?

Foundation schools are state-funded schools in which the governing body has more control over the way it is run. 

They fall under the umbrella of maintained schools, meaning a school that is funded by a local education authority. Being a maintained school, foundation schools must conform to the national curriculum and national teacher wage.  

What is the Role of the Governing Body in a Foundation School?

The governing body, which exercises control over the school, may also possess ownership of the physical premises. Additionally, it falls within the remit of the governing body to oversee staff recruitment and establish admission criteria.

A foundation school retains the authority to determine its academic term dates, often exhibits a religious affiliation, and enjoys a heightened level of autonomy concerning capital allocation for projects.

As reported by The Guardian, the majority of foundation schools are affiliated with the Foundation and Aided Schools National Association (FASNA), boasting a membership of 919 institutions.

While the terms “foundation school” and “trust school” are frequently used interchangeably, a crucial distinction lies in the fact that only the land and buildings of a foundation school are owned by the governing body, while other assets such as equipment, library resources, and financial reserves typically remain under the jurisdiction of the Local Education Authority (LEA).

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Governors and Teachers In A Foundation School 

The governing body assumes a primary responsibility for holding the headteacher accountable for the school’s performance and overseeing its financial affairs. Membership in the governing body is open to individuals over the age of 18, with relatively few stringent prerequisites.

However, a typical governing body member is expected to possess a foundational understanding of the education system and some financial acumen.

In the context of teachers, foundation schools with a religious orientation and a teaching staff exceeding two members are obligated to employ at least one teacher proficient in religious education.

This educator is designated as a “reserved teacher,” and their number must not exceed one-fifth of the total teaching staff. This regulation is delineated in section 6.3 of the “Staffing and Employment Advice for Schools,” a publication by the Department for Education.

The governing body which controls the school may also own the physical land or building. It is also the responsibility of the governing body to employ staff and to set admissions criteria. A foundation school may set its term dates, have a religious background, and have more control over what projects it spends its capital on.  

What Are The Entry Requirements For Comprehensive and Foundation Schools?

The primary criteria for admission to a comprehensive school are age and geographical proximity. It’s important to note that a student’s academic ability plays no role in the acceptance process. However, within the school, there may exist various specialized programs or educational tracks designed to align with individual student needs.

Upon admission, students are typically grouped with peers of similar academic capabilities, making it more convenient for teachers to address their shared educational requirements.

The formation of these groups is often predetermined based on SAT results and final-year primary school exams. In many schools, these groupings remain flexible as students progress and advance through different sets.

Despite the well-intentioned approach of not imposing entry requirements, some critics, particularly parents from disadvantaged areas, raise concerns. The geographic restriction means that comprehensive schools in more affluent areas may only admit students from the immediate vicinity, typically those from wealthier families. Consequently, comprehensive schools that are perceived as high-quality are often located in less accessible areas for individuals with lower incomes.

Foundation schools, similar to comprehensive schools, have minimal entry requirements, with residence within the school’s catchment area being the sole condition for admission. The catchment area represents the geographic vicinity where a child must permanently reside to be eligible to attend the school. You can determine your catchment area using a convenient tool available here, which provides information about all schools and nurseries accessible to you based on your location.

What Are The Advantages of Comprehensive Schools?

Comprehensive schools offer numerous benefits beyond their minimal entry requirements. Their inclusivity, welcoming students of varying academic abilities, creates a more accessible learning environment for individuals with diverse skills and talents that extend beyond the realm of academics.

In essence, lacking exceptional proficiency in subjects like mathematics or the sciences does not preclude a talented child from the opportunity to cultivate their skills within a classroom setting.

Critics of selective grammar schools argue that their entrance exams not only fail to enhance ambition but also contribute to heightened stress levels and damage to a child’s self-esteem.

Comprehensive schools foster social cohesion by bringing together students from diverse backgrounds. While this may not yield academic advantages, it undoubtedly benefits a child’s character development, promoting tolerance and open-mindedness in their interactions with peers from varying backgrounds. Exposure to a wide spectrum of abilities can positively shape a child’s worldview.

Another advantage of comprehensive schools is their typically superior funding levels compared to other institutions. This increased funding is a result of their broader admission base, enabling them to allocate more resources toward high-quality educational facilities and materials.

What are the Disadvantages of Comprehensive Schools? 

While comprehensive schools are designed in principle to promote equality, the practical reality reveals disparities, especially in schools situated in affluent areas. This discrepancy arises because parents of students in such areas are more inclined to send their children to university, leading the schools to adopt a more academically oriented teaching approach to align with parental preferences.

It becomes evident that the quality of a comprehensive school is heavily contingent on its geographical location. Unfortunately, this places economically disadvantaged students at a disadvantage, prompting consideration of whether a selective school might offer a more advantageous path.

Another drawback associated with comprehensive schools (which also applies to foundation schools) is that their lenient admission requirements may inadvertently foster low levels of ambition among students. Gaining entry to these schools is typically straightforward and uncomplicated.

In contrast to grammar schools, where a rigorous entrance test is a requirement, it is often argued that the absence of such pressure in comprehensive schools may lead to a diminished drive to achieve higher academic goals.

The Problems with High Admission Rates

The high admission rate can lead to a lack of attention being shown to students as individual learners. In other words, with more students, a teacher is likely to be able to accommodate different learning styles. This means some students may not receive the attention they need, may be held back, or may be left behind by the rest of the class.  

Critics of comprehensive schools say this is the biggest disadvantage which is not experienced in grammar schools where the classes are smaller and contain students of more similar abilities.  

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The Problem with Large Class Sizes

Furthermore, the inflated admission rates, make discipline more difficult for teachers. A larger class is more changeling to control than a smaller class.  

On top of this, it also makes it more difficult for teachers to get to know students both on an intellectual and personal level. Teaching should be tailored to the individual to foster the best environment for them to excel in. It becomes much harder to create this environment when one teacher is faced with 30+ students. 

This also results in teachers having to teach to the middle. This concept is often employed when planning lessons that benefit the average student in the class as the average normally makes the majority. Although this may benefit most students, it neglects the needs of those who do not fall into the so-called middle.  

To maintain appropriate class sizes within sets, there is the danger that certain students may be placed in sets either below or above their level. For example, a high achieving student may be placed in a lower set than they should be, simply because there is no space for them in their intended set. This, of course, is a bad situation to be in as it leads to students feeling neglected and not being pushed to their highest potential. 

What are the Advantages of Foundation Schools?

The biggest advantage of foundation schools is that they have more control over how they choose to run themselves. Without influence from third parties, they get to decide where they allocate their funds. This is typically a good thing for both students and teachers as they may receive better facilities and resources. 

Though the governing body oversees most aspects of the school, there are certain decisions they must inform the Local Authority of before making. For example, if the governing body decides they want to dispose of certain areas of land, they must ask the Local Authority before doing so.  

There is the possibility that the request may be denied if the authority feels it is not in the interest of the school itself. This may be considered a disadvantage as it then takes longer for schools to make choices.  

The minimum number of governors per foundation school is at least 7 and they all convene to make decisions as one. This means the likelihood of severe mistakes being made goes down greatly. Couple this with the fact that at least two of the governors must be parents and the governing body begins to seem much less like an all-powerful group. The parents will of course have their children’s best interest at heart and want the school to succeed.  

Foundation schools are subject to Office for Standards in Education, Ofsted inspections, meaning they are likely to uphold a certain level of quality. This is an advantage because the teaching styles and overall standard of the school will be put up in question and reviewed by professionals, ensuring the students receive the best possible education. You can search for the Ofsted reports of any school by name using the government website

What Are The Disadvantages of Foundation Schools?

Due to the power of the governing body over the teacher’s employment, they are free to hire whomever they see fit.  

This may seem like a good thing but can have disastrous consequences if not handled suitably. Since the Local Authority does not oversee this process as they do with land disposal, for example, the governing body has no one to answer to but themselves when it comes to hiring.  

The fact that the only real requirement for getting on the governing body of the school is to be over 18 may be cause for concern to some as they hold so much power over the goings-on at said school. They may have certain biases or agendas which can severely disrupt the school and the education of the students attending. 

The catchment area raises the same issues as the low entry requirements mentioned in a previous section. These areas are not free of class division, meaning foundation schools located in wealthy areas are likely to carry a wealthy cohort of students. A lack of socioeconomic diversity can take a toll on the mental state of secondary school-aged students.

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What is the Curriculum Of Comprehensive Schools And Foundation Schools?

In England, all publicly funded schools are obligated to adhere to the National Curriculum, which encompasses twelve subjects. Every state school is required to offer a curriculum that is comprehensive and diverse, fostering the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental, and physical development of both students and society. It also prepares students for the future’s opportunities, responsibilities, and experiences.

For each of the mandated curriculum subjects, the Secretary of State for Education is tasked with delineating a Program of Study, outlining the specific content and topics to be taught within those subjects at the corresponding Key Stages.

Teachers are encouraged to establish high expectations for all students and to design challenging coursework for those whose abilities significantly exceed the expected standard. Moreover, teachers utilize appropriate assessment methods to set ambitious targets for student progress.

Within the National Curriculum framework, all students undergo National Curriculum assessments upon completing Key Stage 2 in Year 6. These assessments encompass core subjects like English, Mathematics, and Science, while individual teacher assessment is employed for foundation subjects such as art and design, geography, history, design and technology, and computing.

Upon reaching Key Stage 4 in Year 11, students take GCSE exams, though they also have the option to pursue alternative qualifications like National Vocational Qualifications and Business and Technology Education Council awards.

GCSE examinations are conducted in core subjects including English literature, English language, mathematics, science, and elective subjects within the arts, humanities, design and technology, and languages.

The core subjects of English, Mathematics, and Science are mandatory for all students aged 5 to 16, while a variety of other subjects, known as foundation subjects, are obligatory at each Key Stage.

At What Ages Does Comprehensive School Start and End?

Comprehensive schools cater to students aged 11 to 16, encompassing Year 7 through Year 11. Beyond this stage, typically between the ages of 16 and 18, young individuals have various pathways to consider. These options may include transitioning to a school sixth form, enrolling in a further education college, joining a sixth form college, or embarking on a training apprenticeship.

For detailed information on the available choices for 16-year-olds after completing their comprehensive school education, refer to this guide, which can assist them in planning their subsequent steps.

What Are the Key Stages in Comprehensive Schools?

In comprehensive schools, the educational journey is divided into two key stages, distinguishing between the lower and upper years. Key Stage 3 (KS3) comprises Years 7 to 9, encompassing students aged 11 to 14 years old. Abundant educational resources are accessible to assist children as they progress through Key Stage 3, particularly in the subjects of English, Mathematics, and Science.

Years 10 to 11 belong to Key Stage 4 (KS4), which includes students aged 14 to 16 years old. Much like in KS3, a wealth of valuable resources and guides is readily available to aid your children in honing their skills in English, Mathematics, and Science as they prepare for their GCSE exams.

What Subjects Are Taught in Comprehensive Schools?

The aim of comprehensive schools when they were first established was to provide a well-rounded and fully comprehensive education to children. Previously many vocational (e.g. business, IT, or Health and Social Care) and foundation subjects (e.g. Geography, History, or Art and Design) weren’t taught in detail at school.

A comprehensive school provides a full range of educational subjects and options for the students who attend. English and Maths form a substantial part of the school curriculum alongside other subjects that are taught in depth. These other school subjects include:

  • Science
  • History
  • Modern Foreign Languages (e.g. French, German, Spanish)
  • Design Technology
  • Physical Education
  • Geography
  • Music
  • Art
  • IT

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What are the two different types of schools?

Comprehensive Schools are public schools open to all students regardless of academic ability. They offer a broad curriculum designed to cater to a diverse range of learners.
Foundation Schools are also state-funded schools, but they have a bit more autonomy in how they operate. They still follow the national curriculum but may have a specific focus on certain subjects, an emphasis on a particular ethos (like religious or cultural), or stricter admissions criteria.

How do I get into each type of school?

Comprehensive School admissions are typically based on your location, with priority given to students living closest to the school.
Foundation school entry can be more competitive. Some may have entrance exams or prioritize students based on specific criteria like academic achievement, religious affiliation, or musical talent.

What will I learn at each school?

Comprehensive Schools follow the national curriculum, which offers a wide range of subjects including core subjects like English and Math, as well as more practical options like art, music, and vocational training.
Foundation Schools follow the national curriculum. They may have a specific subject focus (e.g., science or arts) or incorporate their unique ethos into the curriculum (e.g., religious studies in faith schools).

How are these schools funded?

Both comprehensive and foundation schools are state-funded, meaning they receive financial support from the government.

Which type of school is better?

There’s no single answer! Comprehensive Schools are a good choice for those who want a broad curriculum and a diverse learning environment. Foundation Schools are a good fit for students interested in a specific subject area or who want a school with a particular ethos.


Comprehensive and foundation schools offer distinct paths within the UK’s state-funded system. While comprehensive schools provide a broad curriculum for all abilities, fostering a diverse student body, foundation schools, with some autonomy, may specialize in subjects or have a unique ethos.

There are distinctions regarding entry requirements but both types follow a national curriculum, with foundations potentially adding a specific focus. Ultimately, the best choice depends on your needs – a broad education and diverse environment (comprehensive) or a specialized focus and specific school atmosphere (foundation).



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