Nominally free; but parents must pay for uniforms and trips and are often expected to be involved in on-going fund-raising and donating, sponsoring; more information here;(the figures for cost on education in this study are for mainstream education.. the study specifically excluded private school fees) http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2010/feb/23/cost-raising-child#data
Time investment from you, the parents
At least one of you will need to shape your day around dropping off at school and picking up, helping with homework, sometimes facilitating involvement in Saturday morning sports activities, extra- curricular mid-week activities and supervision in half-terms and holidays. You will also very likely be expected to volunteer to help out at school and possibly to become involved with fund-raising activities at weekends.
Having a say
If you join the Board of Governors, you may have some say on staff appointments and on the allocation of funds. However, even parents who are Governors have little or no influence on class sizes, who teaches their child, how they are taught or when. Time-tables are generally set in stone. As a parent of a child in mainstream you will be likely called upon to give of your time and energy in certain specific ways, such as hearing children read and fund-raising, but will have little or no say over what the children are reading, what the money is spent on or even when to take your family holidays. You have to apply for permission to take your child out of school during term-time and it is the judgement of the head not parental judgement which will determine whether the reason for the absence is justified.
What the children learn
All State schools are obliged by law to deliver the National Curriculum determined centrally and non-negociably by government. The agenda is driven by a top-down approach and schools are held to account by regular testing. Teachers generally go into the profession enthusiastic about helping children learn but many have now long been raising concerns as to the effects of the top-down approach and the extensive testing on children's achievement and motivation. All parents do have some minimal right to opt their children out of certain lessons (e.g. religion, sex education) but even this minimal right has been recently called into question.
The learning environment
Children spend their time in groups of 24 to 30 plus other children all of the same age. Even young children are generally required to remain seated at a table for most of the time, to follow an agenda set by the teacher and to move at the pace of the group. Children are required to change activity regularly during the day at the pace determined by the time-table and there is an expectation that children will learn a certain amount by a certain date in a certain way. Unless they are in a specifically Montessori State school (see below*) , they generally have little scope for spending time with older and younger children, moving around as they learn, choosing their activity or exploring a topic at their own pace and in their own way.
The object of the exercise
is to deliver a curriculum; i.e. to present a certain number of topics in a certain amount of time and to test whether and to what extent the child has retained the knowledge.