Debunking myths about free schools and local authorities | newschoolsnetwork.org

Debunking myths about free schools and local authorities

One of the most important stakeholders free schools in pre-opening should consider is the local authority (LA) they will be working with. Although the school has already been approved, a vital part of opening a new school is working with the LA, and there are a number of ways that schools can try to get off on the right foot with them.

Developing a strong rapport with the LA can also be the key to getting approval from local residents. Unity Community Primary School, for instance, uses input from its LA to challenge and support school leaders. Free schools and LAs both want what is best for local students, so this consideration should come before everything else.

In advance of a Section 10 Consultation, groups should consider whether the LA’s perception of the trust and the new school are in line with the trust’s vision. The most important thing that any trust can do to get an LA on side is to have strong communication with them from the early stages. Groups should start by identifying individuals within the LA who would be the most open to working with the trust, as opposition may be more likely to come from some departments than others. The Regional Schools Commissioner is always a good place to begin, as they will be used to liaising with different departments and will know the best approach to take.

This can require patience, but it is also crucial that groups strike a balance between determination and over-persistence. SEN departments, for instance, have a heavy workload and may be slower to respond – groups should keep this in mind when contacting them. Equally, when thinking about pupil recruitment, trusts can go directly to admissions teams rather than through the LA, as this may help to speed up the process. 

Multi-academy trusts (MATs) may want to invite the LA to see some of the great work they are already doing in one of their schools. The LA may also want to see that a trust has thought about what the relationship between the new school and existing local schools will be, for instance by proposing to share facilities or staff with local maintained schools. Single-academy trusts (SATs) and small MATs may not be able to offer this kind of support, but they should consider other contributions they could make. Knowledge of the local area and having more of a community-centred approach would certainly help make a compelling case to the LA as to why they should support the new school.

Thinking ahead to opening, trusts can also impress Ofsted by demonstrating active engagement with other schools in the area. The Compass School Southwark was praised by Ofsted because staff share working practices with colleagues from other local schools. A willingness to work collaboratively will not only show that a trust cares about the community, but it is also a way of improving the teaching and learning methods that they use in their own schools.

The key to success is remembering that developing a relationship with a LA can take time. The Lighthouse School Leeds is a great example of a school that initially faced significant opposition from its LA, meaning that the new school had to rely on placements from neighbouring LAs to fill places. Today, the school has developed a strong partnership with its LA, which now prioritises sending local students to the school. Leaders have also developed trust and transparency with the LA by giving them clear breakdowns of their finances and letting them know when the school doesn’t need as much funding.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to creating and sustaining a working relationship with any LA. However, there are undoubtedly some strategies that free school leaders can adopt to make this easier. Being co-operative, taking the initiative and displaying a genuine passion for education and the local community are just some of the ways that trusts can ensure the best outcomes for their schools.

Blog topic:
Setting up a free school