5 tips for applying to open a free school | newschoolsnetwork.org

5 tips for applying to open a free school

With the deadline for the latest round of free school applications being extended to Monday 11th November, NSN Adviser, Alexandra Frost, outlines five top tips that will help applicants meet the Department for Education’s (DfE) criteria.

Prove there is a need for your school

To be successful, you will need to prove that your area will benefit from a free school by showing there are low educational standards. NSN has put together some useful data sources that will help you to assess low educational standards, but you should also think about what you already know about the area and undertake some research to make sure you have a good understanding of the local context.

You must also show there is a need for the school places that the free school will provide. The need case is the first part of your application that the DfE will assess and so you must make sure it is strong

To find out where there is a need for more school places you should check the DfE’s school capacity data (SCAP). This will show you the locations in the country where new school places are needed. If you are proposing a primary school, you should be looking for areas where at least 60 places are needed in reception each year as the school grows; if it is secondary provision, you should be looking for areas where at least 120 places are needed in year 7 every year as the school grows. To get the most up to date information, you should speak to the local authority who will be able to provide you with more information.  

Get a strong team in place

A strong team is essential to develop a high-quality application. There is a common misconception that only existing academy trusts can open a free school, but this is not the case. NSN has supported a range of applicants, including teachers, charities, universities and multi-academy trusts to submit free school applications in previous rounds. If you currently run a local authority maintained school, you can convert your school into an academy alongside applying for a free school. If you are a teacher group or community organisation, you will need to establish a new academy trust as part of the application and NSN can provide guidance on this process.

The DfE will be looking for applicant groups who can demonstrate a strong track record in education and finance. Educational expertise should include someone who has been a Head or Deputy Head of a Good or Outstanding school, which is the same age range as your proposed school. Finance expertise could be provided by a school business manager or Chief Financial Officer. Your application will be strengthened if you also have academy governance expertise as part of your core team. This could be a Chair of Trustees from an existing school.

Develop a strong vision

Your vision will underpin the rest of your application and will demonstrate that you have a good understanding of the needs of the pupils that will attend your school. It is important that everyone in your team is committed to the same vision because it will inform the education plan. This in turn will affect how you choose to staff and finance your school. It is important that your free school delivers a broad and balanced curriculum which is both deliverable and affordable.

Your vision should set out the key features of your school, including any way your school will bring genuine innovation to the wider school system (if appropriate). A strong vision will provide a rationale for the new school including the type of school proposed, the need for the school, the age of the pupils and an overview of the curriculum offer. Your vision should form a coherent introduction to your application and is an opportunity to direct the assessor to other sections for further detail.

Engage with the local community

As part of the application process you will need to demonstrate that your proposed school has support from the community. The strongest applications provide compelling evidence that you have engaged successfully with a cross-section of the local community. Your vision is very important when you engage with the community as it will enable parents to make an informed choice about the curriculum and ethos of the new free school.

There are lots of different ways that you can engage with the local community, such as: approaching local schools or nurseries for letters of support; setting up a website; running a survey and collecting responses; and hosting local marketing events. This list is not exhaustive and the most successful applicants will engage a cross-section of the community using a variety of strategies. If your engagement causes you to adapt your proposal in response to feedback, you should highlight this too.

Seek support

Applying for a free school can seem like a daunting process, but you do not have to do it alone. NSN provides support and advice to all groups who are thinking about opening a free school. Groups who join our Development Programme can access a range of services such as a named adviser, a personalised support plan, specialist meetings and written feedback. Best of all, it is free of charge. From our experience, the most successful groups are those who ask good questions and are open to receiving the feedback they are given.

There are a lot of criteria you need to meet to submit a strong free school application to the DfE. Groups on our Development Programme benefit greatly from having access to an adviser who can offer both support and challenge in equal measure. NSN also offers a mock interview to groups who submit an application to the DfE. This is a fantastic opportunity to be tested on your application and ensure that you are well prepared for an interview with the Department for Education.


Opening a new free school is a challenging process. It is also incredibly rewarding. If you are thinking about submitting an application in wave 14, you can easily contact our team who will be on hand to answer any questions you may have. We also welcome you to apply for our Development Programme, a free of charge service which provides access to a range of NSN support designed to help you develop your proposal and write a strong application which meets the DfE’s criteria.

Blog topic:
Setting up a free school