For the first time, opening a new Alternative Provision (AP) free school has been granted its own separate wave by the Department for Education (DfE). With this comes a significant change to the application process.
In Wave 2, which concluded in 2019, local authorities were invited to apply for special schools and AP schools in the same wave. This was a two-step process by which the local authority first put in an application for a special school, AP school, or both. After DfE assessment, approved local authorities opened the application round to proposers. This wave resulted in the approval of just two AP free schools across the country.
Earlier this year, the DfE launched details of the next AP wave, which has now been separated from the special school central route. Pre-registration to open an AP free school will open on 12th September and close on 17th October 2022, with the full application round running from November 2022 to February 2023. It is expected that 20 new AP school across England will be approved in this wave.
The most notable change to this AP wave is that, rather than following the two-step application process, the DfE has made the decision to invite partnerships to apply for AP schools.
What is a partnership?
As a minimum, the partnership applying for the AP school must include a lead applicant and one local authority. The lead applicant may be an existing academy trust, an existing school, AP provider or another type of organisation and will have legal responsibility for the school. If not already an established trust, the lead applicant will need to ensure they establish a multi-academy trust by the time their application is submitted.
In addition to the two main partners, there is no limit on the number or type of other partners that can be involved. This may include neighbouring local authorities who will commission places at the school, charities, sports foundations, other education institutions and any relevant stakeholders. The DfE is not prescriptive in how the partnership should be formed and does not require Memorandum of Understanding or Partnership Agreements to be in place during the application stage.
The lead applicant and the main local authority each have assigned sections of the application form to complete, though the majority of the form should be completed in discussion and collaboration with all partners, to ensure a coherent approach from all parties. More detail on what is required for each section can be found here.
How do we identify potential partners?
Local authorities will need to choose a lead applicant with whom to partner. In the interest of remaining open and exploring options for potential partnerships, local authorities should think carefully about how they want to approach this. Local authorities may wish to run an informal ‘expression of interest’ process, inviting providers to have a discussion or submit a high-level business case. Local authorities should make their priorities for the new school clear to any potential providers from an early stage. They may want to consider:
· Partners' understanding of the local authority's strategic vision and the need for new AP
· Undertaking due diligence to ensure the lead applicant will meet DfE requirements
· Whether the potential lead applicant has existing free school projects in the pipeline
· Which questions they would like to ask the provider - this should cover experience, vision, capacity and existing partners that may want to be involved
· Whether any partners have a potential site already identified, if the LA does not
Create: Schools can help local authorities with building lists of relevant trusts and schools to approach.
Prior to conversations with the local authority, academies and academy trusts will want to familiarise themselves with the local authority's high needs/SEND strategy and any information available about their AP commissioning model. Trusts should ensure that they understand the need for AP in the area, which may include looking at exclusion rates, SEN data and the existing AP offer.
Trusts may want to consider putting together a mini pitch or proposal to best present how they will meet the local authority's priorities and provide outstanding education to pupils who need support outside of mainstream provision.
Individuals, charities, independent providers and other organisations:
As mentioned previously, if you fall into this category and are interested in becoming the lead applicant for the AP, you will need to set up a new academy trust to do so. To do this, you will require at least three members and will be expected to find different individuals to serve as trustees. You will need to bring together a team that has experience and expertise in delivering strong educational outcome, school finances, senior leadership, HR, IT, capital and estates and others.
If you currently run a pupil referral unit (PRU), you will likely be required to convert your PRU into an AP academy which will sit in the same trust as the free school. This is not possible for independent providers.
If you would prefer not to set up a new trust, you could identify an existing trust or local authority and propose a partnership. If exploring this option, you should consider:
· If the trust shares your vision and understanding of need for a new AP
· The degree to which you will be involved in planning the application and in running the school once it opens
The new school will legally be the responsibility of the academy trust, which will therefore have final say in decisions made about the school.
You may not have sufficient time to establish a partnership with an existing trust before approaching the local authority. You should therefore make sure you keep all parties updated of the conversations you have had.
What are the next steps?
Alternative Provision re-registration should be completed by the partnership. Whilst details submitted at pre-registration stage can be edited during the full application stage, anyone interested in setting up a new AP should be beginning conversations with potential partners as soon as possible in order to pre-register from September.
Local authorities should set clear expectations around when and how the decision will be made about partnering with the lead applicant. Potential lead applicants and those interested in being an additional partner should approach their local authority and make their intentions clear, so that the local authority can make an informed decision.
For free advice and support on forming your partnership, or to discuss your proposals for a free school, get in touch with us today.