Managing the free school pre-opening process

Managing the free school pre-opening process

New Schools Network (NSN) has launched a delivery programme to help free schools in pre-opening, including a new range of services, from site advice to project management support

At the time of writing, there are more than 690 free schools open or approved to open across the country, with a record number of applications in the pipeline.

Once full, they will provide over 400,000 new places in schools that are more likely to be rated ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted than any other type of school.

Meanwhile, the Department for Education (DfE) forecasts that a further 650,000 school places are needed in England by 2026 to meet rising demand.

One option is to expand existing schools, as successful schools can play a vital role in meeting local demand.

However, too many places are being created in struggling schools – in the past year over 10,000 new places have been created in schools which are either Inadequate or Require Improvement. Not only is this bad for the children who will be attending these ailing schools, but it makes it even harder to turn them around.

Opening free schools

Against this backdrop, it is no surprise that the free schools programme has flourished. While we await specific criteria for the next wave of centrally-funded free schools, the local authority ‘presumption’ programme continues to offer a chance to set up good new schools in areas of pressing need.

Existing providers, with demonstrable records of educational success, can use this process to create much-needed school places and improve educational standards across the country. In addition, opening a free school can be beneficial for Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs): enhancing collaboration, delivering economies of scale and financial stability, and improving the recruitment and retention of high quality staff.

Of course, opening a brand new free school is an undertaking not without its own challenges. Having worked with more than 60 per cent of open and pre-open free schools, the New Schools Network’s Delivery Programme – a comprehensive suite of free resources and paid-for services – can help groups overcome these hurdles.

Site and buildings

Finding and securing a site and premises for your new school is widely recognised as the most stressful and time-consuming task of the pre-opening phase. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for groups to have their opening dates delayed by a year or more owing to site-related issues.

What’s more, the DfE will delay subsequent instalments of the Project Development Grant – that which covers the non-capital costs associated with pre-opening – until a permanent site has been formally secured. Naturally, this reduces the time and resources available to proceed with other key tasks, such as recruiting a Principal Designate, developing education plans, and engaging prospective students.

Successfully securing a site, as well as designing and constructing buildings that support a specific educational vision, is largely dependent upon a group’s ability to foster effective working relationships with a wide array of local organisations, private contractors and national executive agencies.

It is also important to note that whilst free school groups are the ‘end users’ of each build, ultimately, they are not the ‘end client’ – that designation falls to the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA).

Nevertheless, free school groups maintain the best understanding of the school’s vision. Consequently, while much of the school build process is prescriptive – based on generic building bulletins, legal and capital requirements – there are opportunities to profoundly impact the school environment.

Being informed and engaged throughout this process helps specialists understand a group’s specific needs and is absolutely critical to achieving best outcomes. If a group is to take full advantage of these opportunities, it will need to have sufficient capacity and capability to do so. To this end, NSN offers a flexible Site Advisory Service to help groups navigate this complex process.

Governance and due diligence

Identifying and mitigating strategic and operational risks associated with expansion are still relatively new charges for school leaders. It is crucial for any free school group to demonstrate they will have effective governance from the start of the process, showing that governors and trustees possess the requisite skills and experience to offer sufficient challenge to school leaders.

While MATs might have substantial experience integrating sponsored academies and getting ready for their first Ofsted, establishing a brand new free school from scratch presents an array of distinctive challenges.

As such, we strongly recommend that groups invite an external expert to perform due diligence, identify gaps in capacity and capability and offer practical solutions. At NSN, we have a network of associates who have been involved in opening hundreds of free schools, each with a designated specialism or area of expertise, poised to do precisely this.

Engagement and recruitment

The fundamental task of the pre-opening period is recruiting your first cohort of pupils. The DfE stress the significance of this undertaking, urging “an unrelenting focus on pupil recruitment”. Failing to recruit sufficient students will undermine almost every other aspect of a free school project.

MATs that have been approved to open a free school are particularly well-placed to take advantage of the pre-opening phase. While most free school groups are expected to market a school that doesn’t yet exist, MATs are able to showcase their existing schools. In addition, they can emphasise the advantage of a new school, with no problematic legacy issues.

A further advantage for free schools is the freedom to concentrate on recruiting their first cohort without balancing the demands of running a school. This allows them to focus their attention on attracting students, engaging with their local community and creating fresh new links.

It is essential that this process is managed meticulously, as groups have to be able to manage active engagement and data consumption as well as their own messaging. Through our Essentials Advisory Service, NSN offers engagement with sector‑leading pupil recruitment specialists to advise and quality-assure groups’ work.

More of the best

It takes something special to set up a free school. It is, quite rightly, a tough process; proposer groups must demonstrate that they have the expertise, ability and vision to succeed. What the free schools programme offers is the opportunity for the best educators to open more schools. No headteacher likes turning away pupils because they are oversubscribed, and we agree with the many headteachers who see it as their responsibility to provide a great education for even more children.

At the same time, we recognise that these same school leaders don’t necessarily have the capacity to build a whole new
school without assistance. It is no easy task, but there are significant benefits to good schools forming chains: pooling financial resources to develop high-quality central services; allowing schools to develop subject specialisms and fostering greater collaboration; providing proven teachers with varied opportunities for progression and career development.

NSN’s Delivery team is here to support academy trusts in meeting the rising demand for good school places. Our exclusive programme of advice, support and project management has been developed to comply with the DfE and ESFA guidance and focuses on the areas that our experience shows will provide free schools with the most value in pre-opening.

Our dynamic and adaptable team has built a solid reputation for professionalism and expertise; NSN Project managers and associates have worked on over 500 free school projects – ranging from supporting groups in the pre-opening phase to setting up and working in free schools.

If you would like to find out more about the full spectrum of support available through the NSN Delivery Programme – from our free pre-opening resources through to our comprehensive Project Management Partnership – please contact the delivery team at

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