Labour fires warning after rise in ‘zombie’ academies

Almost 100 academies are waiting to be transferred to new sponsors – with some still in limbo well over a year after the process began.

In response to a question from Labour, the government said 93 academies are currently going through the rebrokerage process, which is when a school moves from one academy trust to another. In late 2017, when Labour last obtained figures, 64 schools were between sponsors.

The latest data shows that one school has been waiting for 23 months to join a new sponsor, while three others have been waiting for more than a year. Based on average school sizes, Labour estimates some 53,000 pupils are now learning in the “zombie schools”, up from 40,000 in 2017.

Ministers blame legal wranglings over PFI contracts, land issues and the transfer of staff for the delays.

Academies are rebrokered by the government over standards or finances, or when their original sponsors fail. But procedural issues and a lack of good sponsors can sometimes delay attempts to move them to new trusts.

In response to a parliamentary question from Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary, government minister Nadhim Zahawi revealed 48 primary schools, 42 secondary schools, two special schools and one alternative provider are currently waiting to move to new sponsors.

Of those 93 schools, while 11 have been waiting to move for less than a month, 47 have been in the process for between one and six months, 31 have waited between six months and a year and four still haven’t moved despite waiting between one and two years.

Schools Week revealed in December 2017 how some schools have even been “double-bounced” between sponsors. And last year, an investigation by this newspaper found that at least 91 multi-academy trust had closed or were in the process of being wound up, prompting uncertainty over the future of their schools.

In two recent high-profile cases, ministers were forced to step in and find new sponsors for schools previously run by the Wakefield City Academies Trust and Bright Tribe, which both folded amid investigations into their finances.

Concerns over so-called “zombie schools” have been central to Labour’s campaign against academies in recent years. At the party’s conference last year, Rayner said a future Labour government would allow councils to take back existing academies when their sponsors fail.

The shadow education secretary has now accused the current government of creating a “fragmented school system in which many schools are simply unable to access additional support, and tens of thousands of pupils will suffer the consequences”.

“Despite leaving almost 100 schools in limbo they are taking no direct action to ensure that schools are re-brokered quickly and effectively to ensure that schools and pupils get the support they need,” she said.

“Parents are right to be concerned that their children’s schools cannot make long-term planning decisions or hire new members of staff.”

Zahawi, the children’s minister, said there are a “number of things that can take time to resolve” during academy transfers, such as “private finance initiative contracts – which can be the most problematic, issues relating to land, financial matters, or the process of transferring staff from one trust to another”.

He added: “A substantial majority of academy transfers are voluntary agreements between trusts.

“Where there are concerns regarding an academy’s performance, the department would seek, wherever possible, to put in place school improvement support while the transfer is underway.”