8 Top Tips for Free School Proposers by Toby Young

Yesterday morning I attended the Free School briefing held by one of our partners, European Electronique (EE). With a full turn out, the event was packed full of useful content aimed at Free School proposers. Well done to EE for curating a great event!

One of the standout sessions for me, though, was Toby Young's talk offering some tips based on his experiences with West London Free School over the last 18 months.

With some frantic note taking, I tried to capture the core essence of Toby’s session and thought it would useful to share these tips on the blog. Apologises to Toby if I missed anything!

In brief, Toby's 8 top tips for free school proposers is as follows:

Tip 1:

Based on Toby's experiences over the last 18 months, one of the key things that Toby has found out about the Free School process is that its constantly evolving. Even looking at the 2012 and 2013 openings, the process has changed massively and will no doubt continue to evolve for 2013 and beyond. So with the ground constantly shifting, this is obviously making the application process fairly challenging. The regulatory challenges forming a key element of this!

Referencing the book, The Last Tycoon, which portrays, among other things, how the head of a Hollywood movie studio has a unique ability to keep the 'whole equation' in his head, Toby spoke about how he failed in his attempt to replicate this achievement. He clearly still did an amazing job with West London Free School, but in a nutshell setting up a Free School is a daunting prospect! Stay with it, though, was Toby's main advice!

Tip 2:

Continuing with the theme of daunting prospects, the complexity of the Free School framework can also be off putting. Again based on Toby's advice, there is no question that the learning curve is a vertical one but it is possible to very quickly get up to speed with this side of the process.

Installing confidence in delegates at the event, I am sure, Toby promised the audience that they would quickly know more than their DfE lead and that this aspect of the application will soon be second nature. A collective sigh of relief from delegates soon followed.

Tip 3:

Addressing the role of the Local Authorities, Toby explained that without the local authority on your side your application has little chance for success. The belief that local authorities are not able to instruct free schools is not entirely true. Without their blessing, especially if the proposer is intending to use a local authority site, the LA will quickly shutdown your application. It may be necessary to change boroughs if this issue arises. Food for thought, for sure!

Tip 4:

A key part of the Free School application process is to demonstrate basic need and demand for school places within the catchment area of the proposed school. With basic need being focused on the number of available school places available within a catchment area and demand extending to the number of students who wish to attend a specific school, it is important to demonstrate a clear understanding of both metrics within the final proposal. If the proposed school can make an impact on both metrics, than the application has a strong chance for approval. Data to assist with this research can be found with Partnership for Schools etc.

Tip 5:

Linked to the tip above, not being able to fill your role, or student intake, would concern the DfE and could potentially present a financial shortfall that would result in the school needing to be bailed out. For obvious reasons, the DfE is not keen on this situation!

With this in mind, Toby Young recommended that even if advised from your DfE lead you shouldn't underestimate the need to fill role from day one. Every effort should therefore be made to ensure that offers go out on National Offer Day. You will find it very difficult to fill role without doing this. Sound advice!

Tip 6:

Consultation also presents some other significant challenges. Getting this right is vital! Due to the importance of this stage, is it important to get up to speed in this area very quickly and become familiar with all the legal implications associated with the process. Toby suggested that proposers greatest vulnerability is in this area and, as a result, formal independent legal advice is needed to avoid getting unstuck further down the line. Getting this stage wrong can result in the whole application to come crashing down!

Tip 7:

While outsourcing to an experienced education partner is tempting, it can often result in an application to be declined. The reason being that the DfE needs to have confidence that the group behind the school has the ability to manage the institution moving forward. Outsourcing to a 3rd party does not create this confidence. The general advice for 2013 and beyond is don’t contract out!

Tip 8:

The final point made from Toby was that marketing is important, even from day one. If your Free School proposal is attacked, don’t try and ignore this until the application is more developed. Start defending your application as robustly and energetically as you can or you will have a difficult time trying to rebuild any negative reputations associated with your school close to opening time. Reputation management is key and the need to engage with detractors and the wider community is vitally important!

Toby did a great job giving delegates to the event a range of useful takeaway tips to help them on their journey to creating a successful Free School application and look forward to following the success of West London Free School over the coming years.


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