Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has announced today that the Government's new 'Education and Adoption Bill' is to “sweep away bureaucratic and legal loopholes” in academy legislation - in other words, to remove even the limited opportunities that have allowed communities to oppose the conversion of their maintained schools into unproven and unaccountable academies.
As the NUT have rightly said in response, “The Coalition Government railroaded through its Academies Act with the minimum of consultation, and regularly used force and coercion to push schools towards academisation. This Bill promises more of the same but with an additional intention to silence critics, including parents and teachers as well as elected local councillors and the communities which schools serve".
Although not mentioned specifically by the DfE, we are in no doubt that they have the SAIL anti-academy campaign, Stop Academies in Lewisham, as one of the 'obstructions' they have in mind. It seems to be a case of, if you can't win the argument, change the law so you can block opposition.
SAIL has been celebrating after the Chair of Governors of the Prendergast Federation announced to parents that they are stopping the ongoing consultation on their plans to convert their three federated schools into a Multi Academy Trust. Instead of being able to go ahead with a vote for academy conversion at the upcoming Governing Body meeting on June 17, they have had to defer their conversion plans in the face of a legal challenge made by a parent.
The challenge was based on Regulation 46 of the School Governance (Federations) (England) Regulations 2012. SAIL campaigners spotted that this Regulation stated that, at least when an Academy Order is being applied for “in respect of a federated school” (like the three schools in the current Prendergast Federation of three maintained schools”), the application must be made by specific categories of Governor. These include “the head teacher of the federated school”, “any parent governor or parent governors elected by parents of registered pupils at the federated school” and “any staff governor employed by the federated governing body or local authority to work at the federated school”.
When the Prendergast Governors met to vote for an Academy Order in February 2015, one parent governor was absent and the elected staff governor voted against the application. Clearly, the Regulations had not been followed and the Governors have therefore had little choice but to retreat.
While these Regulations remain in force, then other campaigners may want to make a similar challenge. Labour MP Kevin Brennan has also tabled a series of parliamentary questions asking how many other Academy Orders made on behalf of a federated school since September 2012 and whether they have complied with Regulation 46.
Of course, this is only a temporary victory as this is very likely to be one of those 'loopholes' that Nicky Morgan now wants to close. Sheila Longstaff, DfE ‘Project Lead, Academies South Division’ has written complaining that “it is disappointing that this issue has delayed the academy conversion of a school when the majority of the governing body voted in favour of the applications”. That sentence gives the game away as to how little the DfE care for genuine consultation – as they clearly expected the outcome to be conversion whatever was said by parents, staff and the local community in response to the academy proposals.
At least the current Regulations – introduced under the last Conservative Government after all - make sure that Governors can’t just force through academisation of a federated school but have to win the backing of a range of stakeholders. Even the Thatcher and Major Governments legislated for parental ballots before a school could take on grant-maintained status. For this Government, however, it seems that winning the support of the school community is just an awkward hindrance to their ideological mission to rip apart democratically accountable local authority schooling.
Pro-academy Governors may be angered by the legal challenge but parents, students and staff are delighted. That’s because this challenge was just one part of a deep-rooted community opposition to the academy plans that included meetings, strikes and local demonstrations. Governors had failed to convince the school community that academisation was in the interest of education – and how could they when the educational evidence simply isn’t there to support academies?
Our local battle mirrors what is now happening nationally. It is the Government that are guilty of putting 'ideology before children', not anti-academy campaigners. Instead of being able to convince parents, staff and students that academies are to their benefit, Nicky Morgan wants to prevent any opposition succeeding in blocking academy plans. She can try, but she won't stop the opposition!