Top tips for your W13 interview with the Department for Education (DfE) |

Top tips for your W13 interview with the Department for Education (DfE)

In anticipation of interviews taking place for wave 13 free school applications, NSN adviser Hannah Jackson outlines our top tips for preparing for your interview with the DfE. These tips are based on NSN’s experience helping hundreds of applicant groups prepare for their interview with the DfE.

Choose the right panel

A large part of performing well at interview is having the right people with you. It is essential that your panel represents a range of expertise covering the key areas of the application, particularly finance, governance, and education.

We strongly recommend that you bring your chair of trustees to interview. As well as answering questions about your governance plans, the chair of trustees can also demonstrate in practice how your governance structures are able to effectively challenge the executive. When preparing, it’s important to think not only about your answers, but about how you will approach your answers as a team. We therefore recommend that you elect a panel chair who can delegate questions to the appropriate panel member, as this can help keep answers concise and relevant.

Know your application inside out

Even with clearly defined roles at interview, everyone on the panel should ensure they are familiar with the contents of the written application. It is important that your panel read through the application carefully to look for any inconsistencies which can often slip into longer bids. Checking thoroughly will allow you to pre-empt questioning and to clarify any potential misunderstandings.

You should also ensure you have key data at your fingertips, such as the demographics of your expected pupil cohort (including percentages of EAL and Pupil premium pupils), pupil place need data, and headline performance data from any existing schools you may run.

Highlight your strengths

It’s important to remember that the DfE interview is a chance for your group to highlight your strengths and relevant experience. It is useful to prepare examples that illustrate where your planned approach has worked successfully in your existing schools, or where a member of your team has had experience successfully dealing with a particular issue.

If there is anything that you believe you as a group do differently and innovatively, think about how you can embed this in to your answers to ensure it is mentioned.It is also worth preparing a short ‘pitch’ to concisely explain why you feel you are the best group to meet the specific needs of children in your chosen location.

Anticipate your weaknesses

It is important that you are able to anticipate the areas of weakness in your application that the DfE is likely to probe. The interview is a chance for you to provide more context around any potential areas of concern and to explain your strategies for remedying these weaknesses going forward. For example, if your track record with disadvantaged pupils is not particularly strong, you must be able to outline the steps you are taking to address this at interview.

To help with this, we recommend that you think about your top three risks in undertaking this project and how you plan on mitigating these. If you are a member of our Development Programme you will have received feedback throughout your time with us on key areas of weakness. You should review the feedback you have had from your adviser and from your mock interview with us as part of preparing for the interview with the DfE.

Keep your answers focussed on the free school

As mentioned above, we recommend using examples of work your team has done elsewhere to support your answers. However, it is important to make sure that any differences in the anticipated cohort of the free school are taken into account and you can explain what will be done differently in the new school to reflect this. 

We often advise group to try to ‘project their answers into the future’, i.e. when your free school is open. This means having a clear vision shared by the whole team as to what the school will look like once it is up and running. This is also applicable to your trust; how will your structures and processes have changed by the time the free school is open?

Show your understanding of the pre-opening process

One of the main things the DfE will be looking to assess is your understanding of the free school pre-opening process, especially if you have not previously opened one. You should ensure you have read the DfE’s pre-opening guidance prior to your interview so that you can demonstrate a thorough understanding of what the process involves. It is essential that you are able to outline a clear plan for pre-opening with each team member having a clearly defined role in the process.

We recommend that groups who are new to the free school process engage with trusts who have an open free school. Providing examples of the lessons learnt from this experience will help demonstrate that you are taking a pro-active approach to understanding and mitigating the potential risks and challenges. If you have already opened a free school, don’t let confidence turn into complacency! You should think about the challenges you have previously encountered in this process and how you have learnt from the experience.

If you are a member of our Development Programme, you will have received a launch assessment which outlines your readiness for pre-opening. Do ensure you complete this and get feedback from your adviser prior to the interview.

Update the DfE on your progress

The DfE interview is also a good opportunity for you to talk about the work your team has been doing since submitting your written application. This is especially relevant to community and partner engagement; if you have held any events for potential parents, produced any marketing material, or engaged with any local partners since submitting, you should ensure you talk about these at your interview.  This time also gives you an opportunity to come armed with the most up to date need data and any updates from the local authority.

While these tips aren’t exhaustive, we hope they will help you make the most of your interview to present the strongest case for your free school. NSN is here to help! If you are a member of our Development Programme, do get in touch with your adviser to discuss preparation for the interview. Other groups can contact us for advice by emailing

Good luck!

Blog topic:
Setting up a free school