Setting up a free school requires having a team with the necessary expertise and availability to complete the DfE's application form in a way that meets their criteria. This team must be able to lead the project through to completion.
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.
- The DfE ask you to pre-register.
- The DfE assess your application against their criteria and decide whether or not to invite you to attend an interview where they will question you on your proposal. They then decide whether or not to approve your proposal based on your application and your performance at interview.
A summary of wave 14 criteria can be found here.
Regional Schools Commissioners
Regional Schools Commissioners 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 and in their free school pre-opening guide.
For more information on what free schools are and how to go about submitting an application, read our introduction to free schools document.
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 and we are awaiting information about future free school waves. However, there are still things that applicants can be doing outside of free school waves to develop their proposals:
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.
Need and standards (mainstream): In the most recent wave of mainstream free school applications, wave 14, the Department for Education were looking to approve free schools in places where there is:
- 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. Examples of relevant data sources can be found here.
Potential applicants are advised to speak to their local authority about the need for a new school in the local area and to maintain an open dialogue throughout the process.
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, type and designation (special) that you want to set up.
- 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. 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 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).
Community engagement: As part of your application you will need to evidence support from the community through engagement with key stakeholders. All applicants will need to evidence that they have engaged with a cross-section of the community, including disadvantaged groups. Special free school applicants will also need to demonstrate engagement with local authority commissioners.
Early conversations with stakeholders should be conducted with care to manage the expectations of the community as there is not currently a live application window. You should also be aware that once a free school application is approved by the DfE, the school 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*.
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.
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. More information on setting up a faith can be found here.
*The new school must not be dependent on borrowing, third-party or nursery income to break even in any year.