Maintained schools hosting visits from politicians in the run-up to elections could be breaking the law, but academies have a freer hand, a legal expert has said after shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt was turned away from an east London school.

Jade Kent (pictured), a solicitor at Michelmores, told Schools Week that maintained schools, as public authorities, were subject to the “purdah” rules that
govern the pre-election period.

Mr Hunt raised concerns over Redbridge Council’s decision to bar him from visiting Woodbridge High school in Woodford with local Labour candidate Wes Streeting, the council’s deputy leader.

Ms Kent said that while maintained schools had a responsibility to consider the rules, academies were different.

She said: “If maintained schools are approached in relation to anything to do with the election, the question they need to ask themselves is ‘could a reasonable person conclude that the school is spending public money to influence the outcome of the election?’

“If the answer is yes, they should refuse to participate. The position in relation to academies appears to be different.

“Whilst it has not yet been tested in court, academies do not appear to fall under the definition of a public authority for the purposes of the rules around purdah and therefore have a free hand to choose whether to become involved or not.”

Following his attempt to visit Woodbridge, Mr Hunt said: “I am concerned that schools are excluding politics from this period of debate.

“If council officials are using the notion of purdah to try to block democratic debate, it’s a loss to the school kids.”

Nobody from Redbridge Council was available for comment.

 



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  1. John Fowler

    Much nonsense is said and written about “purdah”. “Purdah” is not a law, but a convention to protect public authorities from appearing to be partisan political during an election period. This is sometimes interpreted by central and local government officials and officers as doing nothing publicly except the bare minimum. Breaches of purdah are not easily tested in the courts because it is not a law. Ms Kent uses the “public money” approach, which I suggest applies whether or not we are in a national or local election period. And it could prevent the many mock elections that take place in secondary schools before elections. Who is to say whether or not the money spent (however small) does not influence an imminent election, or indeed a future election.

    Redbridge is probably relying on section 407 (Duty to secure balanced treatment of political issues) Education Act 1996 for its approach which requires “a balanced presentation of opposing views”, and therefore it would be wrong to afford one candidate the opportunity to speak in a school to senior pupils (with or without being accompanied by his/her party’s national representative) without ensuring the other candidates are not only are given the opportunity but actually take up the opportunity (although not necessarily at the same time).

    On the Academies issue, for most purposes Academies are public bodies, and hence the (in my view unsatisfactory “public money” approach applies). Section 407 and its accompanying section 406 (Political indoctrination) do not apply to Academies. However, after an outrageous partisan political speech by the former Secretary of State for Education (Michael Gove) at my child’s school in 2012, this was brought to the attention of DfE officials and at least the model funding agreement now requires compliance with ss.406 and 407, except there must be 1000+ Academies whose funding agreement needs updating.