Academies

DfE in court over falling rolls academy plan

High Court challenge over its decision to academise a school council planned to close amid falling rolls

High Court challenge over its decision to academise a school council planned to close amid falling rolls

27 May 2024, 5:00

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The government is fighting a High Court challenge over its decision to academise a school the local council planned to close amid falling rolls – highlighting tensions over such decisions.

Pooles Park school, in north London, was given an academy order in February last year after an ‘inadequate’ rating.

Two months later, Islington council launched a consultation to close the primary, saying it was “the most acutely impacted by falling rolls” in Hornsey, the area in which it is based.

However, the Department for Education (DfE) refused Islington’s pleas to revoke the order, leading to the judicial review.

‘Council and DfE conflicts’

Former national schools commissioner Sir David Carter said it was a “good example of the conflict that can exist between local governance and the role of the DfE in the academy sector”.

Shortly after the council officially approved the school’s closure, the DfE greenlit plans for it to join the Bridge Multi-Academy Trust.

In papers lodged by Alan Bates KC, representing education secretary Gillian Keegan, he noted that the council’s case for revocation was “Pooles Park was ‘the worst’…in the borough, and that it was ‘unviable’ by reason” of falling rolls.

While keeping it open “would not make as great a contribution to reducing” primary places, Bridge’s proposals “would nevertheless contribute towards meeting that reasonable objective of the council”, he said.

The MAT wants to run the primary on a “shared resource model” with another academy. The schools would share a senior leadership team and other resources, and both would reduce their intakes.

“The decision taken on behalf of the secretary of state was thus the product of a careful policy judgment,” Bates added.

“The Bridge MAT’s proposal represented a highly attractive opportunity to meet needs of children with complex SEN which are currently not being adequately met in the north London area.”

‘Wide margin on such policy judgments’

The government said it was “simply wrong” for Islington to suggest that the school’s ‘inadequate’ Ofsted meant it was “unviable and cannot be saved”.

It was “unfortunate” the council had not provided it with “effective support… to prevent its quality of education from slipping”, but “better leadership and management” was “likely to produce improvement”.

The DfE also contended that there was “no basis for any assertion that the council has been rendered unable to carry out its statutory duty” to secure “efficient primary education”.

Its role “does not require that it be placed in control of all local schools so that it can, according to its own wishes, select any local school for closure”.

“There is no realistic basis for the court to intervene on the basis that the decision was irrational, or the product of legally insufficient inquiry, as the council contends.

“This is a context in which the secretary of state should be afforded a wide margin to make policy judgments.”

National birth-rate slumps are expected to cause primary pupil numbers in England to tumble by 16.6 per cent by 2032. London is one of the worst-hit parts of the country, with the number of babies born having already dropped 17 per cent between 2012 and 2021.

This is equivalent to 23,225 fewer children. Almost 15 per cent of school places in the city are now unfilled.

Clarity needed from new government

Islington said its ability to “strategically manage and reconfigure” the primary and secondary estate has been “compromised”.

It pointed to laws preventing it from closing academies and the automatic triggering of the academisation process by ‘inadequate’ judgments. 

Pepe-Di'Iasio
Pepe DiIasio

Association of School and College Leaders general secretary Pepe Di’Iasio said “schools, parents and children need all those in authority to be pulling in the same direction… Very difficult decisions will have to be increasingly made because of falling rolls.

“This case appears to reflect a worrying disconnect between local authority and government decisions over the future of a school,” Di’lasio added.

The full judicial review hearing took place this month. The judge reserved his decision for a later date.

Carter said a new government would “need to bring clarity to issues like admissions and place-planning in order for the roles of the different actors in the education sector to become much clearer in the future”.

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