DfE faces landmark judicial review after school commissioner ‘flouted’ sixth form rules

The Department for Education is facing a judicial review over claims a regional schools comissioner flouted the government’s own guidelines in granting permission for a new sixth form.

The Association of Colleges (AoC) has joined with Havering Sixth Form College to launch a high court challenge against the DfE’s decision to fund a new sixth form at Abbs Cross Academy and Arts College, in Hornchurch, Essex.

The AoC claims that Tim Coulson, regional schools commissioner for the East of England and North East London, failed to follow the government’s own rules after approving the request from the Loxford School Trust, which took over the school in February.

These state, for example, that sixth forms should only be created in schools which expect to enrol 200 students or more.

They should also be graded ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted, offer a full programme of at least 15 A-levels, and not impose a financial burden on the rest of the school.

David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, told FE Week: “We thought long and hard about this action, recognising that the legal costs would be high.

“We will have invested over £50,000 on this process; an investment we felt was necessary at this stage because we wanted to secure clarity on such an important issue.”

We will have invested over £50,000 on this process; an investment we felt was necessary at this stage because we wanted to secure clarity on such an important issue.”

Abbs Cross fell from a ‘good’ Ofsted rating to ‘inadequate’ in its last full inspection in June 2015.

Since then, it has been subject to two section eight special measures monitoring inspections, one in December 2015 and the following in March this year.

The latest report says that although both the trust’s statement of action and the academy’s improvement plan were “fit for purpose”, the academy’s leaders and managers were “not taking effective action towards the removal of special measures”.

It also advised that the academy should “not seek to appoint newly qualified teachers”.

The review, due to be heard in early November, is being launched by AoC in partnership with Havering Sixth Form College, which is 1.5 miles away from Abbs Cross.

AoC has suggested that the outcome of the judicial review could have a bearing on the way the government approves new selective schools, and could even establish the status of guidance to the regional schools commissioners.

Abbs Cross declined to comment, but a DfE spokesperson said: “We are aware of the judicial review launched by the Association of Colleges and Havering Sixth Form College. It would not be appropriate to comment while proceedings are ongoing.”

Dr Tim Coulson, the regional schools commissioner responsible for the decision to go ahead with the sixth form, but he did not respond to requests from FE Week.

At a Public Accounts Committee hearing in March on ‘overseeing financial sustainability in the further education sector’, Chris Wormald, a former permanent secretary for the DfE, commented on the new guidance, saying “we have just tightened our arrangements for approving new sixth forms.

“You can’t just set up a sixth form; you have to apply to us. The regional schools commissioner takes the decision on behalf of ministers, against the criteria.”

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