PAG Explains: Local Authority Competitions

PAG Staff2022, Article, bid writing, free schools, Local Authority Competition, Schools

PAG Explains: Local Authority Competitions

If you are looking to open a free school, there are two main ways of doing so. One is through the central free school waves, which are currently open (find out more here). The second way is through a local authority competition.

A local authority competition, or the free school presumption process as it is also known, is the main route by which local authorities establish new schools in order to meet the need for additional places, both in terms of basic need and the need for diverse provision within their areas.

Mainstream, alternative provision (AP), special, and faith/church schools of all phases can be established through this route, with the local authority responsible for providing the specification and delivering the site and capital works for the project. All new schools established through the presumption process are classed as free schools, and the process sits alongside the DfE’s central free school waves.

Senior Consultant for Create: Schools, Yashna Smart, has worked on over 25 local authority free school presumption competitions during her time at PAG. She has produced a guide below detailing the most important steps and what to consider when navigating a local authority competition.

Step One: Finding out when a local authority competition is happening

There is no sure way of finding out when a local authority competition will happen, but there are a few ways to keep an eye out for them.

Prior to the competition going live, the local authority should undertake a consultation with local stakeholders. The feedback from this can be used to shape the specification for the school. It may therefore be beneficial to speak to your local authority or Regional Director about upcoming opportunities if you are keen to grow your trust.

Once a local authority competition is live, you will be able to find it listed on the Department for Education website or on PAG’s own Live Bids page!

Step Two: Read the specification – twice!

When the competition has launched, you will be able to access crucial information about the competition on the local authority’s website, including the age range, size, and location of the school. You should always make sure to read the specification in full prior to submitting a local authority competition bid; most local authorities will include their own criteria in addition to the DfE’s standard free school presumption criteria. These criteria should be directly addressed in your responses. You should also double-check the deadline and submission requirements. Whilst many local authorities now accept submissions through online portals or via email, some still require hard copies to be posted.

Step Three: Show off your knowledge of the community

As mentioned above, the local authority will be looking for the potential sponsor’s knowledge of the local context and existing provision, as well as their experience in engaging with their current communities for the benefit of pupils and their families. Local authorities want to ensure that the school not only meets the need for additional places and provides a high-quality education, but also becomes a functional part of its community.

PAG has a considerable record of undertaking and completing community engagement projects across proposed schools, Section 10 consultations, and significant change processes. Our methodology for this includes producing a comprehensive pre-opening stakeholders database and identifying the relevant persons or organisations to consult with, followed by the design of a number of initiatives in order to generate feedback.

Step Four: Write your application

Writing an application for a local authority competition is easier said than done! Your application should take into account all of the previous steps in the process; you will need to meet the local authority’s specification, demonstrate proven ability to deliver high standards of education and show an understanding of the local community.

This seems like a daunting task, so you may want to bring in an expert free school bid writer. PAG has a market-leading record in producing successful free school bids across all ages, phases, and school types. Our current success rate, measured by the number of applications produced progressing to interview, is more than 90%. To find out more about our approach to free school bid writing, check out PAG Explains: Free School Bid Writing.

Step 5: Pass the interview

If your local authority application is shortlisted, you will most likely be invited to an interview. This is the last stage of the process and an opportunity to share your vision directly with those who have commissioned the school. Interviews will usually involve preparing a short presentation, answering questions arising from your written application, and sometimes a school visit.

Whilst interviews can be a daunting prospect, PAG can support you through the assessment by delivering a mock panel-style interview to get you and your team ready for the real thing.

Step 6: Cut the ribbon

If your local authority application is successful, you could expect to be opening the doors to pupils within anything from 9 months (we’ve seen it happen!) to 3 years or more - the specification will usually give an indication of when the local authority expects the school to open, and this is often dependent on projected need or the suitability of the site.

There are myriad factors to consider during the pre-opening phase. In the work that PAG has done on both successful local authority competition bids and free school bids, our consultants have built up significant experience in pre-opening project management and can help guide clients throughout the rigorous pre-opening process.

What is the difference between local authority competitions and the central free school waves?

Whilst both local authority competitions and the central free school waves offer routes into opening a free school, there are several key differences between the two. We asked Yashna to explain:

Who can apply

Whilst the DfE open the central free school waves to nearly any group (provided they are able to establish an academy trust by the time their application is complete), local authority competitions are usually only open to existing academy sponsors. Trusts who are not academy sponsors may be able to apply for sponsorship status alongside their free school application, though this should be discussed with the relevant Regional Directorate office before submission.

The role of the local authority

Applying for a mainstream school via the central free school waves doesn’t require any involvement from the local authority (although local authority support is needed for AP and special applications) as applicants submit mainstream free school bids directly to DfE. For a local authority competition, you are applying directly to your local authority instead.

For a local authority competition, there will already be an identified site and the local authority will have established that there is need for a new school in the local area, whereas, for a mainstream central free school bid, it is up to the applicant to find a site and demonstrate basic need themselves. For the special and AP waves, the local authority will need to explain the need and rationale for the free school but will only need to produce a specification in the special school wave. As referenced above, the local authority will fund the capital works for a new school established through the presumption route, whereas in the central wave, the project will be DfE-funded.

Schools established through the presumption route are also more likely to be part of the local authority’s co-ordinated admissions process. The sponsor and the local authority should decide jointly whether this will be appropriate.

The Application

The structure of the application also differs slightly. For local authority competitions, knowledge of local context and community engagement is usually a key focus of Section B, and there is an expectation for applicants, whether already established in the local authority or not, to demonstrate their local knowledge and evidence that they have strong relationships with schools and community groups in the area.

Whilst there was an expectation in Wave 14 for applicants to demonstrate community engagement, this has not been included as a standalone section in the ‘How to Apply’ guide for Wave 15. Whichever route you are taking to apply for a free school, it may benefit your free school bid to include evidence of community engagement, which PAG can provide in addition to our free school bid writing service.

In addition, for school established in the central waves, DfE will usually request several iterations of the financial template. Though they can be, these are not usually requested or assessed for presumption competitions.

If you’re thinking of taking the central wave route to open a free school, rather than applying for a school via a local authority competition, PAG is also the DfE’s supplier of free school support and advice through Create: Schools, offering bespoke support for central wave applications free of charge, including free school bid reviews and mock interview support.

If you have any questions about local authority competitions, free school bid writing or becoming an academy sponsor, please get in touch by contacting us at, or completing our contact form here.