Setting up a free school is a challenging, but rewarding process. Free schools can be set up by new and existing providers alike, but all groups must dedicate the right skills and experience to set up and run the new school.
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 gov.uk.
The application process
- Setting up a free school involves completing a Department for Education application form, which you submit to the DfE in one of their application windows. There is currently no mainstream wave open.
- The DfE asks you to pre-register.
- The DfE assesses your application against the criteria and decide whether or not to invite you to attend an interview where they will question you on your proposal, before deciding whether or not to approve your proposal based on your application and your performance at interview.
When can I apply
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. The most recent free school application window has now closed, however there are still things that applicants can be doing outside of free school waves to develop their proposals:
What can I do now?
- Develop your 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. 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.
- Choose a location: In the most recent wave of mainstream free school applications, the Department for Education were looking to approve free schools in places where there was "both a demonstrable shortage of places in an area such that a new school is needed and; where current educational standards are significantly lower than the local and national average." A new set of application criteria is published with every new free school wave. This means the criteria for demonstrating evidence of need may be different in the future. However, based upon our understanding of previous waves, it is highly likely that applicants will still be required to demonstrate an understanding of the local educational context in terms of demographic need, and standards of existing schools in the area.
- Establish your 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 (primary, secondary or all-through) and type that you want to set up.
- Finance Lead: This must be a qualified individual with school finance experience, such as a school business manager or chief finance officer of an academy trust. At a minimum, this individual should have an accountancy qualification. If you are proposing to set up a special school you should seek an individual with experience of special school finance.
- Governance Lead: This should be someone with experience of academies governance and the Department for Education’s Governance Handbook, ideally a trustee 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.
What else do I need to know?
- Site: You are not expected to procure a site prior to applying. While you are able to suggest sites you have identified in the application form, you should not enter into any formal negotiations on land or buildings. This is because the DfE’s LocatED service are responsible for securing a final site once the school has been approved. The Department for Education will prioritise sites that offer good value for money, particularly sites that are government or local authority owned and that can be leased on the basis of a 125-year peppercorn rent.
- Faith schools: Proposers setting up a mainstream free school can choose to set up a free school with a faith ethos or faith designation. Groups proposing a school with a faith ethos or designation must show that the school will be inclusive to all pupils, including those of other and no faith. Groups proposing to establish a free school with a faith basis or designation must meet additional criteria to demonstrate their commitment to inclusion.
Who do I need to speak to?
- Local authority: To better understand the educational standards and need for places in your area, you should engage with the local authority at an early stage. Having the support of the local authority is beneficial when it comes to assessment, so open dialogue should be maintained throughout.
- Regional Schools Commissioners: Each region of the country has a dedicated Regional Schools Commissioners who oversee school provision in their area, including the establishment of new schools. RSCs have a role in deciding which free school applications are approved and deciding whether to cancel, defer or enter into funding agreements with free school projects. More information about RSCs can be found on the DfE’s website. If you are an existing trust or a new provider, it is recommended you get in touch with your RSC office to discuss your proposal.
- Partners: 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.
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 there is no guarantee that your application will be successful.