Parents and staff at Holland Park School have filed for a judicial review as the standalone academy confirmed plans to join United Learning.
A group of parents, backed by the National Education Union with funding and as a second claimant, are urging the High Court to halt the transfer to England’s biggest multi-academy trust in September. They claim the west London school failed to properly consult on the move.
Hours after the NEU announced the legal bid, Holland Park’s board voted on Monday night to confirm their backing for United Learning after what a spokesperson called “comprehensive consultation”.
It comes in spite of a majority of those consulted backing other options than joining United Learning, according to a letter to parents.
The school faces industrial action this week, with staff on strike between Tuesday and Thursday over their “dissatisfaction” with how United Learning was chosen. The “Holland Park School Parent Collective” has also mounted a sustained campaign against the transfer.
While local academisation disputes have often hit the headlines, this battle is one of the most high-profile yet over an existing, standalone academy joining a larger trust.
The government’s white paper sounded the death knell for standalone trusts, saying all schools must start to join ‘strong’ trusts by 2030 – with MATs the favoured model. With single academies currently making up more than half of all trusts and many cherishing their autonomy, more disputes could follow.
Parents and staff claim consultation flawed
The legal action argues case law shows consultation must happen at a formative stage, give consultees suffiicent time to respond, consider possible alternatives and take views into account before finalising proposals.
But it claims no such consultation with parents and staff happened before governors first decided to join a MAT and selected United Learning as the preferred partner – and a later consultation was flawed.
While the trust did launch a stakeholder engagement process which ended last week, the NEU alleges: “This pretend consultation exercise was much too late and indicated that the decision to join a MAT was a concluded decision.”
A union spokesperson said parents and staff were now seeking formal permission to proceed to a judicial review hearing. Claimants, parents and the NEU are contributing to legal costs.
The NEU has previously campaigned against academisation and called the government’s multi-academy trust drive “simply not evidence-led”. Co-general secretary Kevin Courtney told its conference it would urge members and parents to “resist this siren call for yet more structural change”.
The legal dispute follows a tumultuous year for the school, after current and former staff and students went public over an allegedly “toxic” environment last year. New governors were brought in by the Department for Education after the ex-chair’s departure, and an independent review commissioned.
Its report found “overt” sexism, Islamophobia, racism, students publicly humiliated and sent home during inspections and even Ofsted being misled during a visit to the west London school, once seen as a “socialist Eton”.
Holland Park also received a government notice to improve last year, sounding the alarm over its financial management and governance – and ordering it to rein in executive pay and “consider starting the process” of joining a MAT.
Trust: consultation ‘comprehensive’ and issues ‘addressed’
A trust spokesperson confirmed on Tuesday governors had finalised their decision, and would recommend the United Learning transfer to their local regional schools commissioner.
He said the decision followed a consultation that included “numerous opportunities for stakeholders to be involved”.
Every parent has been offered one-to-one calls or in-person meetings with governors, three open meetings were held with governors and representatives of United Learning, and parents were invited to visit its nearby Paddington Academy.
The trust has previously said it would draw up a report on its stakeholder engagement, with plans to release a summary.
The spokesperson added that new governors had “worked incredibly hard” to tackle problems raised in the report, including hiring an experienced head – with Steve Parsons due to start in September – and new middle leaders to improve pastoral care.
Governors have also “addressed most of the financial issues” raised in the notice, and will “finalise its work shortly shortly by addressing the excessive leadership pay which had previously been permitted”. Former head Colin Hall had been the third best-paid academy leader nationwide, earning at least £280,000 a year.
Meanwhile the trust confirmed Vic Daniels, who became a member last year, will soon become chair. Current chair Jane Farrell joined in September, and had “already stayed in the role far longer than she first intended”, a spokesperson added.
A DfE spokesperson thanked her for her “commitment and leadership”.