Free article: Get ready to win strategic school improvement funding

Published: Wednesday, 27 June 2018

How do you make a successful bid for a slice of the government’s Strategic School Improvement Fund? Best Practice Network’s Liam Donnison asks two school leaders who have done so to share their experiences and advice.


  • The Strategic School Improvement Fund (SSIF) was launched in 2016 with £140 million available over two years.
  • The SSIF is available for schools in most need to improve school performance and pupil attainment.
  • The latest round of successful applicants for the SSIF were announced in January 2018 and a fourth round of applications will open later in 2018.
  • Asking successful bidders for their advice is a great way of understanding how to make a bid.

The government put a significant pot of money behind its commitment to a school-led system with the launch of the SSIF in late 2016. The fund, of £140 million per year over two years, is there for the most in-need schools to improve school performance and pupil attainment.

In the DfE’s own words, ‘it is intended to further build a school-led system and aims to target resources at the schools most in need to improve school performance and pupil attainment; to help them use their resources most effectively and to deliver more good school places.’

By January 2018 the second round of successful applications had been announced, providing funding to teaching school alliances, multi-academy trusts (MATs), local authorities (LAs) and other applicants for a wide range of school improvement initiatives. It is understood that a fourth round will open later this year.

Liam Donnison asked two school leaders what the process was like for them as successful applicants to the fund. He also discussed with them how they went about developing a successful application. He asked what they learned from their experiences and what advice they would give to those groups of schools contemplating submitting a future bid.

Case study 1 Excalibur Teaching School Alliance

Sarah Frame is director of Excalibur Teaching School Alliance (TSA), part of Excalibur Academies Trust in Marlborough, Wiltshire. Excalibur, in partnership with four other south-west teaching school alliances, LAs, Bath Spa University and Best Practice Network, was one of the 55 successful bidders in the first SSIF round in 2017. As one of the first to be awarded SSIF funding, Sarah says the experience was a steep learning curve but was worth it.

The application secured just over £400,000 for a two-year project which started in September 2017. It aims to improve pupils’ mastery of basic phonic knowledge to develop speed and fluency so that they become confident, mature readers with a passion for reading.

The project includes the development of five project hubs overseeing the development and deployment of 22 phonics specialist leaders of education (SLEs), 52 phonics champions and 52 teaching assistant (TA) phonics leads, working with 4,000 pupils across Wiltshire, Swindon, Bristol, Bath and North East Somerset and South Gloucestershire regions. A pupil tracking system has been created, as well as a website containing training materials and resources. Also, teachers, SLEs and TAs are receiving more training and professional development opportunities.

Sarah advises other SSIF bidders to keep their pupils central to their bids and to ask those who do the job on a daily basis what needs fixing. For their bid, the phonics project case was put together through close consultation with Key Stage 1 teachers and phonics SLEs.

Bidders also need to ensure that their bid is achievable, so they can deliver the programme of work they outline in the bid. It is important to make sure that all partners know that they have to deliver on what they have agreed within the costs specified, particularly if they are new to the process.

Simplicity is also important, and Sarah advises that ideas need to translate into actions, so keep it simple. In addition, she recommends that schools think about the impact on the organisation’s support services, particularly finance, because a sudden influx of invoices can take time to process.

The bid-writing process is time consuming, so bid leads should be prepared to make it a priority, ‘and be prepared for some sleepless nights’. She says that time dedicated to this will be worth it because a well-structured bid and detailed action plan makes life a lot easier if the bid is successful.

The Excalibur TSA-led team is now planning to expand the number of schools it supports and to introduce new hubs from September 2018. It is currently in discussions with the DfE about this.

Case study 2 Havering Primary TSA

Havering Primary TSA – part of Learning Federation, a federation of LA maintained schools in Romford, Essex – had submitted a bid in the first round in 2017 which proved unsuccessful. With lessons learned from successful round-one bidders, they tried again and were successful in January 2018, securing £331,000 for a project focused on improving early years (EY) outcomes.

Malcolm Drakes, executive headteacher of the Learning Federation, advises schools to establish links early and to work closely with local stakeholders, such as the LA and other teaching school alliances, to create a bid that is strategically focused and clearly addresses a genuine school improvement need.

He says that bidders need these local connections to gain a really good understanding of the local picture. Malcolm says that within Havering early years outcomes were strong, but when they looked deeper they saw that although Havering performed well in terms of the percentage of pupils who got the expected level of development (the borough was eighth in the country for the percentage of pupils on track with EY) it was only 130th for pupils exceeding the expected level of development, and it was getting worse.

‘It was even worse when we looked at the percentage of disadvantaged pupils who were achieving their potential,’ he says. ‘Our understanding of these issues came from these strong local links; we had strong relationship with the local authority’s data officer. If we hadn’t got that link it would have been difficult to evidence our bid. The ability to be plugged into a local network is key.’

Asking successful bidders for their advice helped Havering TSA’s bid enormously, says Malcolm. He contacted nearby schools that were mentioned in the list of round-one successful bidders published by the DfE and asked if he could see their bid documentation.

Malcolm could see quite clearly why his round-one bid was not successful: the evidence base for the first bid was not clear enough because it had not taken a borough issue and then drawn a ‘golden thread’ down to show how it was also an issue in the selected schools.

‘You must make a direct link to how your chosen schools have needs relevant to the project aims,’ he advises. It was also clear from looking at a round-one bid that their initial costings had not sufficiently incorporated project costs like administrative support, as well as resources and travel.

Malcom urges new SSIF applicants to make sure that the application’s objectives are sharply defined, with no trace of ambiguity, so that the sub-regional improvement boards (SRIBs), set up to advise government on how SSIF funding should be spent, understand the difference the bid will make.

Applicants also need to guard against the desire to go it alone. He says that these applications risk duplicating others and may also lack a strategic understanding of the issues it claims it can tackle. Bidders need to avoid the ego trip of being the main person on a bid and instead get together with two or three other schools, while keeping a hand on the purse strings, he advises.

Some applicants have made the mistake of underestimating their costs – an error that could hit more than budgets.
‘There is a pressure for value for money, and there is a temptation to go in too low, but you must make sure that you cover your project management costs,’ he says. ‘You will be held to account because your sponsor will be the Department for Education. If you massively underestimate costs as well as timescales this could prove embarrassing.’

Further information

Useful advice for SSIF bid applicants can be found at:

  • Strategic School Improvement Fund: application guidance, DfE, April 2018:
  • Education Endowment Foundation SSIF guidance:
  • Best Practice Network provides a range of services to assist SSIF bid writers. For further details contact: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


Use the following item in the Toolkit to put the ideas in the article into practice:

About the author

Liam Donnison is managing director of Best Practice Network, a national provider of training, professional development and support for schools, teaching school alliances, trusts and early years providers. Further information is available at

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