The government has been warned that it is vulnerable to further legal action over a lack of “structure and consistency” in decisions by schools commissioners.
The Department for Education (DfE) is facing a landmark judicial review after claims that one of its regional schools commissioners (RSCs) granted approval for a new sixth form that flouted the government’s own guidelines.
The disclosure comes in the same month as a complaint from Norfolk County Council that it launched a free school sponsor consultation for a new primary school – only to find out just days later that the government had already appointed a sponsor.
Earlier this month an RSC decision to allow a Birmingham school facing financial difficulties to consult on closure was reversed, despite parents being told to send their pupils elsewhere.
Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), told Schools Week: “There is no consistency in the way RSCs work. There is no transparency and there appears to be an increase in decisions not supported by the local community.”
She said the “lack of proper structure” meant the DfE risked “leaving itself open to more [legal] challenge”.
There is no consistency in the way RSCs work
The department faces a high court challenge in November after Dr Tim Coulson, RSC for the East of England and North-East London, approved funding for a new sixth form at Abbs Cross academy and arts college, in Hornchurch, Essex.
The Association of Colleges joined with Havering sixth form college to challenge the decision, claiming that the new sixth form failed to meet new government guidance – including that schools should have 200 pupils or more and offer a full programme of 15 A-levels.
Norfolk launched a four-month consultation to decide who should run a new primary school in Sprowston, only to be told that education secretary Justine Greening had already appointed REAch2 to take over the school.
A council spokesperson said: “This isn’t what we were expecting. We’re surprised it wasn’t a competitive process and are seeking further clarification from the RSC.”
The spokesperson would not confirm if the council would take further action.
Earlier this month, a decision to allow Baverstock academy in Birmingham to start a consultation over closure was reversed.
Pank Patel (pictured), former RSC for the Midlands, had told the Leap academy trust in July that it could start the closure process after a government investigation found “financial irregularity” and “significant weaknesses” in financial oversight.
Parents were advised they could submit late applications to get their child a place at a new school.
But the decision was reversed after a campaign to keep the school open was backed by parents, the council and Steve McCabe, the Labour MP for Birmingham Selly Oak.
McCabe criticised the closure as “punishing the parents and pupils for the [supervision] failure of the RSC”.
Parents have now been told that “renewed efforts to identify a new sponsor … had progressed positively over the summer”.
But McCabe said pupil numbers had fallen about 35 per cent. The government would have to stump up extra funding for the new sponsor to make up for the reduced roll.
The DfE said Christine Quinn, the new RSC for the Midlands, would provide an update on Baverstock by October half term.
The department did not respond to questions about the whether it was looking at ways to strengthen the RSC decision-making process.