PAG Explains: Pre-Opening Project Management
The Pre-opening Phase is a vital part of the free school process. Whether you’ve been successful via the central free school waves or via local authority competition, this is the next stage of your journey and far fewer schools emerge from this process than enter it. In many cases, schools do not pass pre-opening for factors that are out of the control of the proposer. For example, if you can't find a site then you can’t open a school. Equally, changes in birth rate and demographics can put paid to the strongest application with little or nothing the proposer can do to affect the outcome.
At PAG, we know first-hand that opening a new school is a challenging process that requires strong leadership, vision, and determination. Within PAG we have, and continue to sit, in a various seats around the pre-opening table. As such, we bring significant insights into a process which, while well documented and well-trodden, remains a mixture of art and science.
Within PAG, we have significant experience in project managing the pre-opening phase and have guided many clients through this exacting process. We’ve outlined below what we consider to be the most important elements to consider when working through the pre-opening phase.
As with most things, it is important to get ahead and it is never too early to get started with plans for pre-opening, once your application is successful. Taking prompt initial action will establish a strong base for the pre-opening phase, build stakeholder confidence from the start (DfE/LA) and ensure tasks progress in a timely manner. Set a target date for the signing of your Funding Agreement as early as possible – this gives everyone an aiming point and solidifies your timeline around other work. Critically, in mainstream schools, it enables you to make unconditional offers to pupils and some staff.
It is also important to assign a project manager/lead as early as possible. Pre-opening takes a considerable amount of time and energy, and prioritising project management will help everyone involved manage often competing demands of the day job and pre-opening – unless you are lucky enough to have pre-opening as your day job like some PAG staff!
Ensuring that your organisation has the right skillsets to deliver your vision for the new free school is an important element to consider during the pre-opening process. You will have needed to consider this as part of your bid submission but has the position changed since then e.g. a member of the pre-opening team being re-deployed or leaving? The start of pre-opening is a perfect opportunity to consider where you may have gaps in in-house capacity, and you may wish to consider whether your team is optimised for the path ahead.
A significant part of pre-opening is recruitment. PAG advises to advertise as early as possible for a Principal Designate to ensure that you are able to appoint the best candidate for this critical role. While parents/carers will be interested in what the Lead Proposer, Chair or CEO has to say, they are really only interested in who will be directly in charge of the education and welfare of their child. This is particularly true at the primary phase. While it would be inefficient to hire a PD simply to turn up to open events, you may wish to consider asking them to turn up ‘as a favour’ before they officially start work. We have seen first-hand that having the PD at an open event provides a significant benefit to recruitment of students.
Once they have been appointed, don’t waste their time with project management and administration; ensure they have the time and support that they need to focus on strategy, curriculum, and ensuring that your vision for the school can be executed.
It is vital that you use your funding wisely during the pre-opening project management phase, balancing costs of administration, staffing, consultation etc. It is also important that you maintain a contingency fund in case of any unexpected costs during the process. One of the first steps in the process should be to establish a pre-opening budget that outlines how the Project Development Grant funding will be allocated. For Central Wave projects, you will be expected to profile and report on spending as part of the project governance process.
It may also be worth keeping an eye out for additional pots of funding that you may be eligible for, such as Trust Capacity Funding.
Saving the best until last. To an extent, there is very little that proposers can do around the siting of the school as this is dealt with by the DfE or the LA. As discussed, no site=no school and even when a site is identified, we have dealt with issues ranging from bats to Great Crested Newts, through to unexploded WW2 ordnance. As you can imagine, all these have an impact on timings! The best you can do on site it to be fully aware of what the likely challenges will be. For example, does the site need an access road building to it? Is the capital programme contingent on S106 monies and/or housing build out? The final piece of advice here would be to recognise the political pros and cons of a new school being established in your areas and ensure that you stay close to key stakeholders, including the local MP and local Councillors as they can be very helpful to unblock things.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long does it take to open a new free school once the application is successful?
The epitome of the ‘how long is a piece of string question’ PAG and its Directors have opened schools in less than six months and the record held for the longest pre-opening phase that ended in success was five and a half years!
What are the biggest risks in pre-opening?
At a high level and probably in order for most projects the biggest risks are around site, student recruitment and staff recruitment. You should keep a live risks and issues log to ensure that the mitigations to these risks are clear.
Where can I look to engage expert support in the pre-opening phase
A starting point would be to read the DfE’s pre-opening guidance from back to front and back again. This document is very comprehensive. Create: Schools also has some useful resources. Finally and we would argue the best thing to do would be to contact PAG as we’ve done 150+ successful pre-openings!