Whilst you will need a building in which to open a Free School, groups don't need to have secured premises before applying to the DfE.
If you submit a strong application without premises, the Education Funding Agency (EFA) will help you search for a suitable site.
Groups are strongly advised not to enter into any negotiations with property agents or freeholders before you are approved. However, it makes good business sense to identify potential premises: the more information you can give the EFA when you are approved, the better the chances you have of finding a site in time. It will also help with collecting demand because parents prefer to know where a new school will be. We advise that you spend some time looking for sites, but don’t let it distract you from the core elements of the application. The information in this part of the website will help you work out if there are any suitable sites in your area.
The DfE will very rarely consider a new build to be the best-value solution for a proposal. 'Suitable' premises will almost always mean existing buildings that can be refurbished or converted to house your school. There are four main approaches you can take.
Your links with the community are essential. As you form your steering group and meet parents, ask them for information, and look around the area for sites you can pursue informally; this will avoid having to approach agents and limit the chances of you entering negotiations pre-emptively. This method of approach is particularly effective because it allows you to identify sites before they are placed on the open market. A property currently on the market may well have been sold by the time you are approved. In order to leverage local knowledge you could
- Organise a walk-about in your area to identify vacant premises
- Hold meetings with community groups and charities that already use buildings in the area
- Use informal networks to make your proposal known, or
- Find out if there are any local landlords who have buildings for lease or sale.
Having investigated the options in your local area, you may find a local public building that would be suitable for your Free School. If it is under-used or vacant, this can be a good option as many public buildings have the relevant planning classification, D1. If the building is owned by your Local Authority, you can contact them to find out more. You can find the number of the Estates department on the council website or through the main switchboard. You may wish to consult the Local Authority Asset register, a list of buildings that are owned by your LA. As well as local authority-owned buildings, you might also consider buildings owned by government departments. The Department for Education has worked with the EFA to compile a list of public sector properties that would be suitable for Free School use. You can find out more about these at the DfE website, here. Other sources of information include the Free Schools Kit, which allows you to search for publicly owned buildings in your area. Data.gov.uk might also be useful.
Many Free Schools have used commercial premises, through leasing or purchase. In searching for commercial premises, you must not enter into any agreements that may prejudice future negotiations between the EFA and the owner of the freehold. You must also be aware of the building’s planning category, as it is unlikely to be classified as D1. This doesn't prevent you using the site, but will slow down the planning process. You can also use online property sites to help with your search - just use their commercial property search functions.
In some cases, developers will approach groups in an area offering to house a Free School in a new building as part of their plan for an area. The EFA is aware of such solutions and will consider them. This option has consequences for the growth of your school and the collection of demand, so it's important to consider your approach to the project carefully. Early on, you'll need to know what stage the developer has reached with their planning negotiations with the local authority, the local authority’s position on the site being occupied by a Free School group, and the role your group and the EFA could be expected to play in the specification of – and payment for – the building to be supplied. In this case, you may wish to contact the EFA to discuss your proposal at FreeSchools.EFAcapital@education.gsi.gov.uk.
Not all buildings are suitable for use as Free Schools. Ultimately the decision over the appropriateness of the premises you identify for your school will be made by the EFA, but there are some points you can bear in mind as you conduct your search to ensure that your plans are feasible.
There are no statutory requirements on school size for Free Schools. The Independent School Regulations, which will apply to your school, state only that a school is of an appropriate size to allow for effective teaching, and that no area of the school compromises health and safety. In addition, primary schools must have outdoor space for pupils to play safely. Within these criteria, there is a great deal of flexibility. The EFA has produced a guide to the floorspace your school will need, based on the number of pupils you intend to teach. Substitue your number of pupils for 'N'.
|Nursery & Primary||4.2 x N + 350m2|
|11-16||6.3 x N + 1050m2|
|Post 16||7 x N + 350m2|
In identifying the basic suitability of a preferred site you will also want to consider:
- Outdoor spaces; will there be space for PE, break times, etc? How does the external space compare to other local schools?
- Distance between facilities; would pupils be able to move between classes in the time allowed by your proposed timetable?
- How will transport work? What are the pick-up, drop-off, and parking implications? Is it accessible for both vehicles and pedestrians?
- What is the current state of repair? It can be very expensive to restore buildings in poor condition.
- Are there any unusual features that may have health and safety implications?
- Is there sufficient natural light, ventilation and air quality?
- What is the surrounding environment; will pupils be able to work and learn without undue disruption from neighbouring businesses or transport? Free Schools in urban areas have had to consider statutory requirements around noise.
- Does the building have any special constraints, e.g., is it listed or in a conservation area? Will planning consent or change of use be required?
- Has the building previously had other uses? Will it be able to conform with requirements around floor-loading, for example?
All schools must be designated as D1 (non-residential institutions). Focussing your attention on D1 buildings will make securing planning permission easier, but don't discount other opportunities at this early stage. The Local Authority has responsibility for granting changes to use class. You can discuss with your local planning officer whether any building you are considering might be changed to D1 designation. In making planning decisions, Local Authorities must take government guidance into account. The Department for Communities and Local Government published revised planning policy framework in March 2012, which states that local authorities should “work with schools promoters to identify and resolve key planning issues before applications are submitted”, and that planning authorities should “take a proactive, positive, and collaborative” approach to ensuring that there is a “sufficient choice of school places available to meet the needs of existing and new communities.” If you are approved, the EFA will help you through the planning process but an early conversation with the planning department will help you make the case that your preferred site can meet the needs of your school.
Value for money
The DfE place a high priority on achieving good value for money through the Free Schools programme: new builds are very unlikely to be approved because they are very capital intensive. But value for money is not just about cost. You must make a case for your chosen building based on its suitability for delivering your educational plan to those whose needs you intend to meet. This demonstrates that you will extract value from the premises you have identified. Academies and Free Schools have often secured their sites on the basis of a peppercorn rent from the freeholder of the building. The very low cost and low capital-intensity of this option means that it is usually prevents the best value for money. However, other Free Schools have found commercial lease solutions to meet their premises needs. This approach may be necessary where it is not feasible or possible to acquire a freehold or a low rent. A commercial lease requires especial sensitivity to the importance of not entering into prejudicial agreements before being approved. You must not enter into negotiations about value, but you may discuss availability. For more about negotiations, please consult our Premises FAQs.
Making your case
Presenting a strong case for your proposed site can strengthen your application. Identifying a site early can help you collect demand. Parents are often more willing to sign up to support a Free School proposal if they have an idea of where the school will be. You cannot guarantee that your school will eventually be located in the premises you have identified, but demonstrating that there are sites available in the area helps establish the credibility of your project.
Identifying a site will help provide a clear rationale for why your preferred site is best suited to your needs. It can help you to explain how your school will operate on a day-to-day basis. You can be more concrete about timetabling and extracurricular activities, for instance. In Section H itself, you should set out the details of two sites if possible. Including a second site will provide a comparison that strengthens your case for preferring the site you have chosen. The DfE’s ‘How to apply’ document sets out what is expected to be included:
- Your reasons for choosing it
- The address and postcode of the proposed site
- The current use of the proposed site
- The current freeholder of the proposed site
- A brief description of the site including size (in square metres) along with the pupil numbers you are proposing
- The availability of the site and the nature of the tenure,
We would also recommend that you include the following information
- The guide price (if available)
- It’s current classification (planning use class),
- When the building will come free,
- Whether it is listed?
- Whether it is actually on the market?, and
Why you think the site is suitable for your school and how it will support delivery of your educational vision. As a proposer you should focus on presenting a clear view of your school’s organisation, curriculum models and learning activities in order to set design challenges, not solutions, for architects to respond to. These challenges can be either for a whole school or spaces within a school.
The two key questions to be answered in designing a school are:
- What types of spaces will be needed? You may also want to consider how different types of spaces should be arranged in relation to each other.
- How will the spaces be used? This is important in order to move from a broad structure to a detailed design of the size and shape of rooms and how they will be fitted.
Rather than answering these directly, focus on providing the information that would be needed to answer them.
The following websites may help you find a number of potential sites:
- A list of public sector properties that would be suitable for Free School use produced by the Department for Education and the Education Funding Agency. You can find out more about these at the DfE website, here.
- A list of publicly owned buildings in England http://data.gov.uk/dataset/commercial_and_industrial_floorspace_and_rateable_value_statistics
- Other sources of information include the Free Schools Kit,