The Department for Education’s application window for the opening of free schools closes on October 10. Pauline Hagen discusses her experience of the process.

Last January, after much research, we decided to apply to the Department for Education to open a free school sixth form college.

Our primary motive was a moral one — the need for alternative post-16 provision in our chosen area is well-documented.

There was also a pragmatic driver. Alongside all the other colleges who make a significant contribution to the government’s priorities of narrowing gaps, raising attainment and improving social mobility, we have taken a funding battering in recent years, and our unprotected budget remains vulnerable.

Despite being a high-performing college, it seems we are not as interesting or understood by the Coalition as the new breeds in the education marketplace.

In addition, we recognise the benefits of sharing resources and expertise across two colleges. And we felt confident that our vision was deliverable.

In three years, we have reversed the declining performance of a college and taken it to outstanding. We have done this in a context similar to the one in our chosen area which has similar levels of deprivation and prior attainment.

We decided that not only was this project something which needed doing, but also that we could do it.

The last eight months have been spent gathering data, creating a vision, producing staffing, curriculum and financial plans, developing a governance model, enlisting governors and researching suitable sites.

Be prepared for reactions which will include overt hostility, regardless of how strong the evidence is about the need for alternative provision

It seems presumptuous to give advice to others who are considering doing the same thing. After all, our application may not be approved next month, and even if it is, that will generate a whole new raft of work.

But one member of the team said to me the other day: “We’ve produced a handbook on how to open a college” — and that does encapsulate what is needed in an application.

In the process we have been able to reflect on our own college and the way we run it.

We have learned much from the process, not just about how to put together an application, but about communicating messages, seeking allies and building support. But there are things we would do differently if we had known eight months ago what we know now.

Planning a long lead-in is essential.We thought we had plenty of time, when the idea of a 2016 opening seemed reassuringly remote.

But the process has its own momentum and it put considerable stress on our small team who already have a day job. Expect to work though holidays and weekends.

One thing we should definitely have started earlier is the ‘thousand names project’. All free school applications must demonstrate that they will be at full capacity or oversubscribed by the first year of ‘steady state’. For us, this meant getting 1,000 students of the right age to indicate that the proposed college would be their first choice. We built a micro-site and produced a mini-prospectus and sent teams of staff into the town to talk to potential students and parents. We started this work quite late, in June and July, as the school year approached its end. Given that we had no direct access to students in the appropriate year groups, this was quite stressful.

Early on, we applied successfully for a place on the development programme delivered by the New Schools Network (NSN). This independent charity works to improve education by increasing the number of innovative state schools.

We attended a weekend training event, and have been supported by an adviser and consultants who have provided feedback on all aspects of our application. Places on this programme are dependent on the strength of your vision, and on meeting the NSN’s own internal deadlines.

Be prepared for reactions which will include overt hostility, regardless of how strong the evidence is about the need for alternative provision.

For us, this hostility had the advantage of making us very clear on our mission, which is reaffirmed every time we come across an argument which has nothing at all to do with the success of young people, and everything to do with protecting poor performance.