Special free school competitions

This guidance sets out the process for applying to set up a special free school through the new local authority special free school competitions (also known as the expression of interest process). It also summarises the changes in the criteria by which all applications will be assessed that have been made since September 2016.

Please note the deadline for applications to the LA special school competitions has now passed. The information below is provided for information only.


In November 2016 the Department for Education (DfE) offered all local authorities the opportunity to submit a specification for a special free school to open in their area, by completing an ‘expression of interest’ (EOI). This form required the local authority (LA) to specify: 

  • the SEN designations the school would cater to
  • the age-range (including whether a nursery was required)
  • the number of places they would commission
  • the top-up funding they would pay for each place
  • whether residential provision was required
  • where the school should be located

In addition, local authorities were required to include data showing that a special school to meet the specifications was needed in the area and to provide a site for the school.

The DfE has approved 19 of these specifications and is now inviting special free school proposer groups to submit applications to open and run these schools.

How to apply

If you wish to apply to set up one of these special free schools, you must pre-register before submitting an application. You can pre-register online DfE’s website.

You can submit an application between Thursday 27th July and midday Friday 24th November. Full details of how to submit applications be found in the Application Guide and Criteria. Applications must be submitted to both the DfE and the relevant local authority.    

All submitted applications will be assessed by the relevant local authority with input from the DfE. After the paper assessment, some applicants may be invited to attend an interview. The Secretary of State will have the ultimate decision making power as to whether or not to approve an application.

If you are approved, you will move into the pre-opening period and work with the DfE in the same way as free schools approved through other routes.

Information for applicants

There are a number of things to consider about this process before you start to work on your application:

You must apply for one local authority specification rather than applying speculatively. You can apply to be the provider of different schools, however these will each be separate applications.

  • Applications must follow the relevant local authority’s specification in terms of pupil numbers, SEN designation, pupil build-up, top-up funding and location.
  • You do not have to run an existing special school or any school to apply to set up a free school through this route. However, as with previous free school application waves, you do need to have individuals on your team who have recent or current experience as a senior leader with a strong track record. This is typically judged as having at least one individual who has lead a Good or Outstanding state special school, who is able to dedicate a significant amount of time to the project as a key member of your project steering group.
  • If you are an existing maintained school, the DfE will expect you to convert to become an academy and form a multi academy trust (MAT) if the new free school is approved. However, you do not need to convert to an academy before submitting an application. You can speak to your Regional Schools Commissioner (RSC) about the process of academy conversion. You can find out who your RSC is and how to contact them here. 
  • If you are a single academy trust (SAT), the DfE will expect you to convert to run a MAT if your free school application is successful. However, you do not need to do so before your application is approved. 

Criteria changes

All applications for local authority commissioned special schools will be assessed according to the updated DfE criteria (which can be found in the Application Guide and Criteria ) and the relevant local authority’s specification. While the updated criteria are largely similar to the criteria released for Wave 12 (September 2016), there are some key changes summarised below.


You do not need to provide evidence that your special free school is needed and that you have commissioners’ support and commitment in your application. This is because the local authority has already established that this school is needed in the original ‘expression of interest’ form, and confirmed the number of places it will commission at the school as well as the top up fee that it will pay.

In Section E, you will still need to demonstrate the level of interest from parents (and students, if your school includes 16-19 provision) for places at your school during the first two years of opening. This includes estimating the number of parents who you believe would request your school to be named on their child’s EHC Plan. This needs to be based on your engagement with the local community. You should also explain how you have engaged with the wider community such as local support groups, parents and students. More details can be found in the updated criteria in the Application Guide and Criteria document.

Instead of summarising the rationale for your school in Section C, you must now explain how your vision for the school aligns with the local authority’s specification and how your education approach will bring this to life.

Preparing for adult life

The DfE expect groups to focus on how their school will prepare students for adult life throughout their application and especially in Section D. You must consider and continually address how your school will support students to realise their ambitions and progress to further education, live independently, and participate in the community as is appropriate and where possible.

As well as this continual focus, in Section D you must explicitly address how the school will prepare pupils for adult life. In Section D2, you are now required to explain how you will involve pupils and their families in decisions about their support, ambitions, and progress.

Other changes

Information which you were previously required to include in Section D5 now must appear in Section D1. Here, you must explain how the school will assess and meet the needs of all pupils and demonstrate that the strategies used represent best practice and ensure safeguarding, behaviour and attendance are effectively addressed. You must also explain how your school will engage with outside agencies to do this successfully. 

Unlike in Wave 12 (September 2016), all groups must complete the application form in full, regardless of how many schools they run. This means that all groups must provide full information in Section D, Section F1, Section F2 and Section G.  

You do not need to complete Section H of the application, as the site for your school has already been approved.

NSN’s Applicant Handbook 2016 outlines how to complete each section of the application, but this should be read with reference to the changes outlined above. 

Quick links


Local Authority specifications

Application Guide and Criteria

NSN Applicant Handbook and resources