With a little over two months to the deadline for Wave 13 of the Free Schools Programme and judging by the number of calls and emails we’re received over the past two days, it’s fair to say that a number of you have come back to school with a little more to do than is perhaps ideal in relation to the free school bid. Fear not: there’s help out there. Make sure you choose carefully…
Whilst writing a free school application has a lot in common with other bid writing processes, particularly those to other government departments and even more so to other DfE processes, it remains a distinct process requiring a specific set of skills. We’ve put together this handy list of questions to ask your Bid Writer before you sign on the dotted line (plus the answers you’ll hear if you ask us at PAG!).
1) How many successful free school bids have you produced?
The free school application form carries significant historical baggage which renders some aspects slightly confusing – why the requirement to discuss PHSE twice in two different sections? – and others mind-boggling – why a separate application form, application form guide and a How to Apply document which all give slightly different criteria for various sections?
Your gold-standard Bid Writer will have written enough of these bids to navigate the process, and have the knowledge of the many iterations throughout the life of the programme and what they mean. Crucially, they will know how to translate your fabulous ideas and practice into DfE-friendly language and a structure that ticks the boxes.
At Premier Advisory Group, we have written, reviewed or managed bids for over 150 schools through the central free schools and the LA presumption processes.
2) What’s your success rate and what does that actually mean?
It’s one thing to have written a lot of bids, quite another to have seen a lot of proposer groups progress to interview and eventually open schools. You’ll want to check that your Bid Writer has a great success rate as well as a heavy workload.
At Premier Advisory Group, we have a success rate of 93% across all the bids we produce, including free school bids, LA competition bids, SSIF, ESIFF, TLIF and MDIF bids. We’re clear on what we see as success in the free school process and that’s getting you to an interview with DfE. At this stage (and with our help around mock interviews) it’s over to you to sell your idea with passion and professionalism.
3) When did you last write a successful new school bid and was it one like mine?
You already know that the free schools process has evolved significantly since the almost unrecognisable Wave 1 back in 2010. Wave 13 is perhaps the most significant evolution since 2011, with a new structure, amended criteria and new eligibility barriers, but it owes a lot to all the waves which have come in the interim seven years. It also owes a lot to the 18 months in which we saw no central free school waves at all, during which time the process developed through a series of LA presumption competitions. If your Bid Writer hasn’t been involved in any of these bids over the last two years, or in any of the later free school waves, they’ll need to do some catching up.
At Premier Advisory Group, we have worked with multiple applicants in every free school wave since our founding; prior to this, our Directors worked with applicants since Wave 1 since 2010. We have also worked with an applicant in the majority of all LA presumption competitions since 2015. This work spans successful bids from small primaries to large secondaries, through SEND, AP, Post-16 to multiples of the same.
4) What’s your insight into the workings of the DfE?
The free schools process has as many implicit criteria as explicit.
· Which of the eligible areas is the best place to set up your school? What’s the competition likely to look like in each area?
· Will the capital costs attached to this bid be prohibitive?
· What does your team need to look like and what capacity do they actually need to commit to in the application?
· How do you need to prepare for interview?
None of the answers to these questions will be found in the documentation; as the documents have become increasingly clear across the waves, so has the nature of the game changed: more capital pressures, more competition, more emphasis on the opaque role of the RSC and Headteachers Boards. If your bid writer understands how the DfE thinks and works at all stages of the assessment process, they will be able to make sure that you hit these hidden criteria as well as everything in the How to Apply guidance.
The team at Premier Advisory Group includes ex-DfE Education Advisors, free school application assessors and Lead Contacts. This, combined with the fact that all the founding Directors of PAG have themselves applied for and opened multiple free schools, gives us an unparalleled view of the programme and the process from first word to the first sip of Champagne after the first Section 5 Ofsted Inspector. We can also lend you an ex-HMI if you wish….
5) What’s your insight into the workings of NSN?
Whilst arguably NSN is no longer quite as close to government as it has been heretofore, there are still two very good reasons to ensure that your bid writer understands who they are and how to work with them.
Firstly, they offer some extremely useful services, and these services are free. There is no reason – except if you’re deciding to apply very late, when working with them may be a distraction – not to take advantage of these services.
Secondly, access to NSN’s Development Programme is still an important badge of approval which will be stated in section A of your application as a mark of quality. Whilst it won’t make or break your application, it will start you off on the right foot with the DfE assessors. Working with NSN, therefore, is an important skill for your Bid Writer.
PAG’s Client Director, Charlotte, is an ex-NSN senior advisor who was central in establishing both the Development Programme and NSN’s support for special and AP free schools. All of our Directors and Bid Writers are experienced in completing Development Programme applications and working with NSN advisors and specialists to improve applications.
6) Are you prepared to consider a success-fee model?
It is rare to find a bid writer in the free school market who will work entirely on a success fee basis – it’s too big a job and, unlike for example CIF, doesn’t come with the potential for a large commission at the end of it. If you can find one and they can answer the questions above satisfactorily, then snap their hand off.
However, it is absolutely worth asking whether any potential Bid Writer is prepared to work on a partial success fee basis to minimise your up-front costs and ensure that they are fully motivated to write an amazing bid by even more than their professional pride. Whilst bid writing is a specialist job which will save you time, provide expertise and boost your chances of success, and therefore deserves respect, everyone working with schools in the current financial climate knows that budgets are extremely tight and therefore should be working with you to come up with a fee structure which works for you as far as possible.
PAG is always prepared to consider sensible suggestions around fee structures, including success fees. We also add value: every new client commissioning PAG in 2018 will receive an annual subscription to our PAG On Call advisory service.
So there: our easy guide to making the right decision on who to commission to produce your free school application. We hope that you’ll work through these questions and come up with our name in the end! In any event, we wish you all the very best in the days (and nights and weekends) to come.
Roll on November 7th!
If you’d like to discuss how PAG can write, review or manage your free school bid, please don’t hesitate to email me with any questions or to arrange a call or meeting: firstname.lastname@example.org