The short answer is that they seem to think they can.
In another post, I have explained how, in a maintained school, the head teacher can decide that a particular pupil should be disapplied from specified elements of the National Curriculum, and how parents can appeal against that decision.
So what about academies and free schools? The starting point, as explained in that other post, is that section 482 of the Education Act 1996 (for a Labour created academy) and section 1 of the Academies Act 2010 (for a Coalition Government academy or free school) require, albeit indirectly (through the funding agreement) that the curriculum is ‘balanced and broadly based’. But individual funding agreements can then impose additional requirements and, depending on when the academy/free school was created, those additional obligations may to a lesser or greater extent require parts of the National Curriculum to be delivered.
As far as I can see, all of the Labour (pre September 2010 created academies) nonetheless included a provision which allowed the principal to decide that the academy should not teach a subject to an individual students or groups of students. The text in the January 2010 model agreement said this:
“… the Academy Trust is not required to teach an individual pupil or group of pupils in one or more subjects where, in the opinion of the Principal, it is inappropriate to do so by reason of the pupil’s or group’s ability or attainment.”
Interestingly a similar provision seems to have been included in all earlier Labour agreements, regardless of whether they had only loose specifications for the curriculum (as in the early days) or required it to be more like the National Curriculum (the later days).
Although, in broad terms, that is analagous to the regime for disapplying the National Curriculum in maintained schools, it notably lacks the procedural safeguards of that regime. Thus, for example, the Principal is not required to tell parents they have decided their child should not be taught particular subject areas; and parents have not right of appeal – issues relevant to a case study I mention below.
But in any case, there does not seem to be an equivalent in the current model or in the funding agreements from September 2010. In some ways that makes sense because, if the requirements for the curriculum are only loosely defined, then it might be thought there was less of an issue with withdrawing pupils from parts of the curriculum. But that in itself might also be thought to emphasise the fact that parents of pupils in an academy or free school have no real idea what their children are being taught and no opportunity to comment on that, let alone to challenge a decision (say) not to teach their child what others are being taught (whatever that happens to be).
None of that may matter when things are going well, but what about when they are not?
I acted for a boy in Y11 at an academy. There was no doubt that he had the ability to study the mainstream curriculum and obtain some GCSEs but, nonetheless, the Academy in question decided he should attend off-site provision in basic skills, motor mechanics and the like. When all off it, other than one day per week, fell through, his mother asked that he be allowed to return to the classroom with his peers. The academy refused saying he should cover the curriculum at home, on his own, with a lap top. In the end he spent his Y11 doing one day per week at a ‘skills centre’ and four days a week at home ‘studying’ on his own (which was then recorded on the register as ‘unauthorised absence’ for 4 days per week). The academy (one with the provision as above in its funding agreement) said that the principal had decided it was not appropriate for him to study (in effect) any subjects, albeit that it was still claiming he should and would study them at home, and albeit there was no evidence of the principal actually having taken such a decision, let alone had reasons been given for it. So that academy, at least, seemed think it did not need to teach its pupils.