Some legal advice from a top barrister on challenging academy conversions

Fiona Millar's picture
Some months ago I posted a legal opinion about the Academies Bill on my website . It was written by  David Wolfe , a barrister from Matrix Chambers, who has been involved in many cases on behalf of parents concerned about their schools changing status.

Following the news that parent campaigners at Tidemill Primary School in South London had successfully challenged their governing body to think again about becoming an academy, and after many other requests via this website for help with academy campaigns, I thought it might be useful to get David Wolfe's advice again, on the key questions for parents and governors to ask, before their school takes what is an irreversible step.

The Tidemill governors volte face was based on the fact that they had been given inaccurate information on which to base their decision. In particular the school had told governors that it would cost them £60,000 to pay for additional services normally provided by the LEA, if they opted out, when in fact the DfE’s estimate was £78,000 and the LA estimated the figure to be in excess of £229,000.

How many other schools are making, or might make, these decisions based on faulty information? David Wolfe's advice to all governors is as follows:

1.       Find out exactly how much money is available to cover start up costs and get clear (and fixed) quotes for all the work involved in doing it.

2.       If there is a promise of more money each year, find out exactly how much it would be, and for how many years it would last.

3.       Get absolute clarity on what additional responsibilities and risks the governors and the school would be taking on, and make sure there is very clear information (including quotes from suppliers etc) on what those things would cost, including not just recurrent costs (like insurance, professional costs, etc) but also the costs of occasional things (like responding to employment tribunal claims, legal challenges from parents whose children are excluded, building problems, etc).

4.       If part of the motivation is the suggestion of “freedoms”, identify exactly what it is the school wants to do differently (does it, for example, actually want to change holiday dates or set spot salaries for teaching staff?) and check whether those things are in fact prevented by the current status and thus becoming an academy is actually necessary.

5.       If the perception is that the LA gets in the way of what the school wants to do, then check that really is correctly the case: LA’s cannot actually do much to stop governing bodies doing most if not all that governors in practice want to do.

6.       Do the governors actually want to take on the extra workload and cost of owning the premises, of running admissions (including appeals) and so on.

7.       If the school is involved in any joint or collaborative projects (eg around shared buildings, or as part of partnerships with other schools) check exactly how those would be affected, legally, financially and in practice.

8.       If other claims about freedoms/benefits/etc have been made in support of the proposal to change, then scrutinise them very carefully.
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Sarah Dobbs's picture
Sat, 05/02/2011 - 21:43

Thank you very much - this will prove very valuable for our new campaign in the Louth area. How much information do the governors have to publish as they undertake the process? What are the best ways of keeping track of the consultation and decision making processes, especially when here we are dealing with 5 seperate governing bodies?

Alison's picture
Sat, 05/02/2011 - 22:19

Thanks for this it is very helpful!

Rachel Parkin's picture
Sat, 05/02/2011 - 23:10

I'm the sister of Sarah Dodds (above) and I teach in a small primary school in Birmingham. All power to you Sarah, and thank you to Fiona and others for their vital insights. I hope and pray that I will never have to fight against my own school becoming an academy, but if the time ever does come, they can expect a fight on their hands! We must do all we can to stop the creeping sell-off of arguably our greatest asset.

Sarah Dobbs's picture
Sun, 06/02/2011 - 11:06

All I need now is my mum.....

Fiona Millar's picture
Sun, 06/02/2011 - 12:29

She is welcome on the site!

Gareth Bailey's picture
Sun, 15/05/2011 - 17:07

There is no way our Governing Body is going to have all the answers to these questions before they take their vote. They intend to take a year in prep for opening their new school and address them as they crop up along the way I imagine. Does that mean potentially they could be challenged at a future date?

Fiona Millar's picture
Sun, 15/05/2011 - 20:48

I am not sure they could be challenged but there is certainly no going back if things don't turn out as planned, which is why it is worth answering these questions in advance.

Sarah Dobbs's picture
Sun, 15/05/2011 - 21:18

Gareth - how can they make a good and informed choice unless they are clear about these issues? There are many metaphors that we could about choosing a holiday without knowing how to best get there????? How will they really know which are really the best and most cost effective options without full answers? This is exactly why schools should undertake a very slow and careful process, involving careful consultation.

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