Ten Top Tips for Pre-opening Project Management for Free Schools

PAG Staff Project Management

Pre-opening Project Management


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At the end of last year, the DfE closed applications for another two waves of the national free schools programme. This included Wave 14 for mainstream free schools and Wave 2 for SEND/AP schoolsSuccessful Wave 2 applicants have been announced recently and an announcement on the successful applicants for Wave 14 is expected in the coming months  

At Premier Advisory Group, we have a wealth of experience in the pre-opening project management of new free schools. Our experience encompasses both SEND and mainstream schools, across all phases, and for both national waves and local authority presumption competitions. Our significant experience can help guide clients throughout the rigorous pre-opening process.
As the pre-opening phase commences for successful Wave 2 and imminently for Wave 14 applicants, we wanted to share some of our hard-earned wisdom to make the process that little bit smoother for you.


Top 10 Tips




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It’s never too early to start – or sign

A common thread through PAG's pre-opening top tips. Prompt initial action will set the foundation for the pre-opening phase and ensure tasks progress in a timely manner to meet your deadlines. Negotiate the signing of your Funding Agreement as early as possible – this solidifies your timeline and enables you to make unconditional offers to pupils and staff.

Project management takes more time and energy than you think


The pre-opening phase is a challenging period, and things can quickly get out of hand if project management is not prioritised. Assigning a project manager or team to oversee workstreams is not a luxury, but a safety net  




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Identify missing skillsets

Aside from your ability to deliver the work and the oversight alongside the day job, you should look to consider which missing skillsets you would wish to develop in-house capacity for, and which should remain outsourced. If you’re a growing trust, this can be a great catalyst for a more general evaluation of your people strategy.

Communication is vital


You’re not opening this school alone. Open lines of communication, such as regular calls with other actors such as the DfE, LA, and RSC, will smooth the pre-opening phase and ensure that there are advocates for your school throughout government.


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Money matters

Use your Project Development Grant wisely, balancing administrative costs with the likes of salary and consultation. Remember to maintain a contingency to cover unexpected costs! And consider additional funding opportunities: the Trust Capacity Fund 2020 to 2021 will award up to £17 million to support trust growth and development across England. Opening your new school and bringing them into the trust makes you eligible for up to £300k.  


Focus on your deliverables


considering the key deliverables – such as your consultation report, education brief and governance plan - and milestones as early as possible is central to timely delivery. Commit these to paper in the form of a project plan and risk register to save vital time in the months ahead. 



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Anticipate site complications

Construction and capital works rarely keep to schedule. Ensure you identify a suitable person with capital expertise early on who can identify and mitigate against these risks. And start thinking about broadband as early as you can – this always takes longer than you think.


Strategise your pupil recruitment strategy


Develop a clear pupil recruitment strategy early on to get the word out to local families and communities and build a support base. Build in planning for a long admissions process to give you the best chance of securing sufficient applications for places. Hold regular open events and prioritise community communications, both on-site and online. 



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Don’t waste your principal designate

Advertise early to ensure you have time to appoint the best candidate for the position. Once they are in role, don’t waste their time with project management and administration – make sure they have the support they need to spend their time on strategy and curriculum. They will be the best cheerleader for your school, so open their communication with parents and the community.


Spread the word


You need people to hear about your proposed school, and equally you want to hear what the community have to say. Work with local families, schools and other stakeholders to align the school's provision with the community's needs – small things, like exactly when your wrap-around care opens in the morning – make all the difference. 



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PAG knows that entering the pre-opening phase is an exciting but daunting time. Since you submitted your application your position and capacity may have changed, and this is often an opportunity to take an honest assessment of your current situation. Ultimately, the pre-opening phase signals the beginning of you and your team delivering on what has likely been years of plans and hard work. Congratulations from all of us at PAG to successful applicants preparing to enter the pre-opening phase, and best wishes for the endeavours to come!

To learn more about us and how we can support you during the pre-opening phase, arrange a no-obligation chat with one of our project managers here 



Interested in our services?


Bidding for funding

We have experience in assisting schools and trusts in obtaining government funding or other grant programmes. We provide tailored advice and strategic financial planning, to lead the production of comprehensive bids for funding. Examples of the types of funding we have helped our clients access recently are the Trust Capacity Fund (TCaF), the Emergency Strategic School Improvement fund (eSSIF, or the College Collaboration Funding (CCF).



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Free school applications

In the last year, PAG has supported over 25 trusts with free school applications in Wave 14 of the mainstream process, Wave 2 of the SEND free school process, and various LA competitions. Applications are drafted by a team of professionals who between them have proposed, opened and acted as a DfE Assessor or New Schools’ Network (NSN) Advisor for over 150 free schools including a significant number of special schools.



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Project management

PAG provides project management services to school in their pre-opening phases. We offer a personalised service to help with the volume and complexity of tasks in the pre-opening period.Our service includes tracking progress towards key milestones, documentation control, and ensuring effective and efficient communications between key individuals and stakeholder groups. Our project managers have built a trusted relationship with the DfE, ensuring project success and timely opening of the new schools.

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