Holland Park parents and NEU lose legal bid to block school transfer

Holland Park School's failed High Court claim against the DfE paves the way for it to join United Learning

Holland Park School's failed High Court claim against the DfE paves the way for it to join United Learning

9 Dec 2022, 10:45

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A group of parents backed by the National Education Union have lost a High Court bid to block the transfer of the high-profile Holland Park School to England’s largest multi-academy trust.

The claimants had claimed government failed to properly consult over the controversial decision to move the standalone London academy into United Learning.

But Mrs Justice Hill dismissed the claim in a High Court judgement handed down on Friday, ruling that the DfE’s stakeholder engagement had been a “fair” process. Campaigners said they were “deeply disappointed”.

The decision paves the way for the transfer, backed by trustees and the Department for Education, to go ahead.

It had been due to take effect in September, but the DfE agreed to pause the transfer pending the case.

United Learning and other trusts have been providing support this year, and the legal transfer may now happen as early as January. The claimants are not expected to appeal.

Yet the judge still said the DfE should have provided more information about potential alternative MATs, in a verdict with potential implications for other schools’ futures.

Ministers themselves have recently acknowledged strong support for more transparency on transfer decisions.

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The plan to transfer the single-academy trust, once dubbed the “socialist Eton”, came after a bullying and discrimination scandal was exposed and financial problems emerged at the trust.

But the move was heavily opposed by a group of parents, as well as many staff members of the NEU and the local authority, Kensington & Chelsea. Staff walked out earlier this year, but suspended the action in October pending the High Court case.

More than 300 parents wrote to the government in June condemning the transfer process, and campaigners have attempted legal action against the trust, Ofsted and DfE.

But court documents show the DfE accused claimants of a “persistent failure to accept and engage with the grave operational difficulties of maintaining HPS as a SAT”, in the judge’s words.

Financial controls placed on the trust, which included ordering it to consider a MAT transfer, were recently lifted in recognition of improvements.

It was also rated ‘inadequate‘ earlier this year however, allowing a DfE regional director greater powers over the transfer.

Process ‘fair’ – but DfE could have done better

The NEU and parents’ lawyers argued the consultation was unlawful, as they had not presented parents with the alternatives being considered to United Learning. Harris Academies and the Kensington Aldridge Academy were also on a shortlist.

The judge said it would have been “preferable” if the regional director had given brief information about alternative MAT options, and been “clearer” about geographical criteria used in the process. There was “limited evidence” justifying the DfE’s practice of not naming unsuccessful sponsors in case it caused reputational damage, she added.

But Hill still ruled that “fairness” did not require naming alternatives – accepting the DfE’s case its intention was to inform government decision-making, rather than seeking general public participation. Hill also agreed the alternatives would have been “reasonably obvious” to stakeholders.

The court documents also show trustees’ initial bid to join another large MAT, Ark Schools, was blocked by the regional director because the trust was only willing to take the school on in September 2023.

The official said this was “not an acceptable date of transfer because of the urgent need to stabilise HPS”, according to the judgement document.

The judge stated separately that the DfE’s evidence that transfer delays would cause “real hardship” was “compelling”, and that the trust board “do not have the capacity” to make rapid improvements.

The case is part of a wider trend for single-academy trusts to fold into larger ones amid political and financial pressures, but has been one of the most fiercely contested battles to date.

DfE says limiting disruption ‘priority’

A spokesperson for the Holland Park School Parents Collective, which brought the claim, voiced disappointment but said it was “important to note that the judge did not vindicate the DfE’s actions”.

“Our priority is to ensure our children are protected, and our rights as parents to have our views about their education and educational environment considered remains a basic right, if this country is still considering itself a democracy.”

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said stakeholder engagement had been a “sham”.

“This case highlights the present inadequate position that schools can be forcibly transferred from one academy to another or from a single academy to a multi-academy trust without a full and genuine consultation process with the school community.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said they were “pleased” Holland Park School would join a strong MAT.

“Ensuring there is no disruption to learning remains our priority, and we continue to work closely with the school’s leadership team.”

Holland Park School and United Learning were also approached for comment.

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