In July 2018, the Department for Education (DfE) launched a joint special and AP free schools wave. Local authorities (LA) were encouraged to submit their case for a new special or AP free school in their area. Of the LAs that applied, 39 were approved to invite applications from proposer groups to open new schools in the area. 37 of these special and alternative provision free schools have now been approved into the pre-opening stage.


Please note: The Department for Education no longer funds New Schools Network to provide support for free school applicant groups. For more information about applying to open a free school, visit

Future opportunities

When can I apply?

The most recent special free school application window has now closed and we are awaiting information about future free school waves. The amount of time you will need to complete your application will vary depending on your experience of running schools and how developed your proposals are. In our experience of supporting applicant groups, it takes 3-6 months to develop a free school application.

How can I plan for a new wave?

Although there is no special or AP wave currently active, there are still key considerations for proposer groups to begin planning outside of the application window:

Engagement with the local authority: In previous waves, the responsibility for demonstrating the need for a new special or AP school has either rested with the respective LA or the proposer group. We do not know what a future special and/or AP free school wave will entail, however in either circumstance, LA-led or proposer-led, we advise groups to speak to their local authority in order to:

  • Discuss the local context
  • Discuss the need for a new school
  • Secure commissioner support

These three elements are crucial to developing a bid in a proposer-led process. In the LA-led process, this research can also be used by proposers to make the case to their local authority that a bid to the DfE for a new special or AP school would be beneficial to the area.

The most recent special and AP free school wave was LA-led, making it essential that proposers engaged with LA commissioners in order to fully understand the LA’s need and vision for the new school. Local authorities are responsible for commissioning and funding places in special and AP schools and they are best equipped to help proposers understand the landscape and challenges of current provision and pupil profile of the area. We therefore encourage all potential applicants to contact their LA as a first step towards building their proposal.

Vision: Developing your vision is crucial to your bid. A vision statement sets the guiding principles for the project. It Is essential that your vision is created in response to the needs of the pupils who will be attending the school and what you want them to achieve. With this as your foundation, your vision should detail the key features of your proposed free school, the rationale for setting it up and any innovation it may bring to the sector. For special school proposers it is essential, on developing your vision statement, that you explain how your new school will work with other mainstream and special settings to develop and share expertise.

Where the wave is led by a local authority, applicants may be required to meet a specification set out by the LA. The vision for the school must respond to the details specification in full, which may include the age range and SEN designation that the school will cater for.

If you are an existing provider, you will need to consider any plans for the growth and development of your academy trust and explain how the new school will fit within that structure.

Your vision statement should not be fixed in the first instance and is likely to develop over time. It is important that all core members of your team buy into the vision for the new free school.

Team: To demonstrate that you have the capacity and capability to open a successful new school, you must have the appropriate expertise across your core team. Skills gaps – such as project management, marketing, HR, safeguarding and health & safety – can be filled at a later stage in the process, but the following roles are essential for the application phase:

Education Lead: This should be a serving, or recently serving head teacher or deputy head teacher of an Ofsted rated Good or Outstanding state school of the same phase and  type.  For special schools, it is important to consider whether the education lead has sufficient experience of catering for the specific SEN designation of the proposed school. If not, you may need to recruit additional educational expertise to your team.

Finance Lead: This must be a qualified individual with school finance experience, preferably in an academy, such as a school business manager or chief finance officer of an academy trust. Depending on the type of school, this individual should have either special, PRU or AP finance experience.

Governance Lead: This should be someone with experience of academies governance and the Department for Education’s Governance Handbook, ideally the chair of trustees of an academy trust or the chair of governors of a Good or Outstanding school. This person will lead on the governance section of your application.

If you are not already an existing school or academy trust, then you could secure this expertise through a partnership with an existing education provider (see below information on partnerships).

Setting up a Company Limited by Guarantee: The DfE require any new proposers to set up a company limited by guarantee (academy trust), using the department’s model articles of association, before submitting their application. Information on how to do this can be found on Page 57 of the DfE’s How to apply guide and on the government’s website here.

Community engagement: As part of your application you will need to demonstrate that you have engaged with key stakeholders and used the outcomes of this engagement to inform your bid. The DfE suggest engaging with local partners and providers, local parents’/carers forums and students/young people. Special and AP free school applicants will also need to demonstrate engagement commissioners such as the local authority and/or local schools.

As there is not currently a live application window, early conversations with stakeholders should be conducted with care to manage the expectations of the community. Please note that once a free school application is approved by the DfE, it is typical for there to be a period of 2-3 years in the pre-opening stage before the school is ready to open.

Partnerships: To help deliver your vision for the new school, you may wish to draw upon additional support from external partners. Partnerships can bring a variety of benefits and will strengthen the free school’s network.

Educational partners can provide expertise to your project, or simply advise on certain sections of your application. They can also share staff and resources with the new free school once opened, depending on the nature of the relationship. Businesses can provide careers guidance and work experience opportunities to pupils in the school, as well as additional capital for projects and materials central to your vision*. Charities and health care providers may provide pastoral or therapeutic services to the school agreed through a memorandum of understanding.

As with engaging members of the community, preliminary conversations with potential partners should conducted sensitively and with an awareness that the free school application process is competitive and that there is no guarantee your application will be successful.

Faith schools: Special and AP schools can adopt a faith ethos, in that they can explicitly align with a specific faith which shapes the vision and ethos of the school, however they cannot adopt a faith designation.

Further information on the difference between a faith ethos and a faith designation can be found on page 61 of the DfE’s How to Apply Guide.

*The new school must not be dependent on borrowing, third-party or nursery income to break even in any year.