The government has withdrawn 19 academy orders issued without governors’ consent after a legal challenge over a diocese’s academisation drive.
Four unions, who brought the legal action, called it a “victory for common sense”, but also demanded an independent investigation into why they were issued at all.
The Department for Education sent out academy orders to every voluntary-aided Catholic school in the Diocese of Hallam in December.
Such orders are usually only sent out after applications by governing bodies themselves for converter academies, or after “inadequate” inspection results for sponsored academies.
But the diocese, which spans South Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Nottingshamshire, applied for the orders on the schools’ behalf.
The National Association of Headteachers claimed the letters sparked shock among heads and governors. The unions then took legal action – alleging the orders were “void” as governors had not voted.
Now the government has informed unions that the education secretary has agreed to formally withdraw the academy orders for all 19 schools. It will instead await applications by governing bodies themselves.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT, said compulsion can “never be the right way to convince schools” to academise.
He said the situation in Hallam had been “badly mishandled”, and taken a “serious toll” on leaders and governors.
“We will now press for a further independent investigation into went wrong.”
The Catholic diocese is one of several embroiled in disputes with unions amid discontent over their tactics, as increasing numbers seek to consolidate their schools in multi-academy trusts.
The diocese has previously said schools and the DfE were informed about their approach, which envisaged votes being held after the orders were secured.
The DfE previously told Schools Week it was working with the trust “in accordance with all legal requirements”, but said it had “paused” the process last week to respond to the legal action.
Kevin Courtney, general secretary of the National Education Union, added: “This is a victory for common sense, and an important line in the sand.”
The reversal of academy orders is rare, with the DfE only allowing it from 2016 and in “very exceptional circumstances”.
A previous Schools Week investigation found only 33 had been revoked by April 2019, and more recently even a school with credible evidence of improvement had to go to court to block its conversion.
A DfE spokesperson said: “We continue to work with the Diocese of Hallam as they establish academy trusts in consultation with their schools, and will issue new academy orders in due course once formal applications are made by the relevant schools’ governing bodies.
“We remain committed to moving towards a school system where all schools can benefit from being part of a family of schools in a strong multi-academy trust, because they help provide outstanding learning experiences for both children and staff.”
They added that it had always been the case RSC decisions were “one step” in conversion, which includes governor consent.
Philip Patterson, director of education at the Diocese of Hallam, said: “We note that the Department has stated in their response to the legal challenge by the NAHT and others that they are withdrawing the academy orders for VA Schools and will await resolutions from the governing bodies wishing to convert before re-issuing them.
“We will continue to work closely with our schools and the Department to deliver the Bishop’s strategic vision.”