Education Feb 5 2011

Some free legal advice on academies!

Some months ago I posted a legal opinion about the Academies Bill,  written by  David Wolfe , a barrister from Matrix Chambers, in London, 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, I thought it might be useful to get a 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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