Next steps for the school estate in England |

Next steps for the school estate in England

On Monday 11th March, NSN Associate John Godfrey spoke at a Westminster Education Forum seminar on ‘Building new schools in England and meeting the demand for school places’, including sessions ranging from ‘Refurbishing school estates’ via the Priority School Building Programme to ‘Designing the next generation of school buildings’. Ahead of the Comprehensive Spending Review expected later this year, the seminar presented an opportunity for stakeholders and policymakers to discuss the future of capital funding for schools.

Prior to the panel discussion, John shared his experiences opening The Charter School East Dulwich and provided a high-level overview of the many site-related tasks undertaken during pre-opening; offering a ‘view from the ground’ of the complexities finding and developing a site and building(s) able to deliver the school’s curriculum and founding vision.

Drawing upon his experience, John highlighted three key points to help pre-opening project groups navigate this process successfully:

Free school pre-opening groups are the end-user, not the end-client.

A subtle difference, but a critical one. Depending on the application route – i.e. via a local authority presumption competition or a DfE central ‘wave’ – the capital for the new school will be provided either by local or central government.

Ultimately, these agencies are the end-client as they are paying for the build. They will deploy a project team to manage the programme and will commission a variety of contractors to deliver the build. The DfE Free Schools Capital team have a recently released a Customer Journey Booklet to explain the process and people involved in more detail.

As such, groups should be mindful of the specific skills and expertise that each stakeholder brings to the programme. Maintaining an open dialogue with awareness of stakeholders’ respective motivations helps groups establish how and when they are able to input and influence key design decisions.

Write a design brief and establish your ‘red lines’.

Developing a vibrant educational statement represents one of the first challenges awaiting newly-approved free school groups in pre-opening. An effective educational statement should clearly elucidate why the school is needed, what it aspires to achieve, as well as articulating how it hopes to do so.

The very best confidently confront the challenges the school seeks to address (it’s mission); declare – defiantly – precisely what it hopes to achieve in the future (it’s vision); outline the core values that define its unique character and ethos. (Further guidance about developing an educational statement can be found here).

Based on this founding vision, the role of the design brief is to define the school’s requirements and ‘red lines’. The brief should function as a clear, concise statement of need (two-sides of A4 will probably suffice).

From this starting point, the brief will evolve in consultation with technical experts through the concept design stage. Clearly articulating needs right at the beginning of the project aligns stakeholders and helps them understand your priorities. It will also clarify the group’s own thinking internally and unearth aspects of the build that they will be more willing to compromise on. Presenting this to architects and contractors should foster greater collaboration.

Consistency is key: wherever possible, keep the same people around the table.

When establishing your project site team/working group, recruit people who understand what they’re getting themselves into and are willing and able to stick around for the long haul. Depending on the circumstances, finding and securing a site, designing and developing a build can be an attritional process; a settled team will develop a shared history and legacy of understanding of the decisions made throughout the process.


NSN recognises that finding and securing a site and premises for an approved free school is one of the most challenging and time-consuming tasks of the pre-opening period. NSN’s Site Advisory Service helps groups to navigate this complex process, ensuring the best outcomes for staff and students. If you are interested in finding out more information about how NSN can support your project during pre-opening, please contact us at

Blog topic:
Setting up a free school