Tighten rules on parental consultation before academy conversion, DfE told

Ministers are under pressure to draw up stronger rules on how thoroughly schools must consult before becoming academies after a flurry of legal objections from parents.

Under the Academies Act 2010, the governors of a maintained school that wants to become an academy must consult formally with “such persons as they think appropriate”.

Government guidance suggests this should include staff and parents, as well as pupils and the wider community, but this is not included in the act.

There is no specification of how long the consultation should last, and it can be carried out before or after an academy order has been made.

One parent group in east London is seeking a judicial review to challenge the decision of the Roman Catholic diocese of Brentwood to academise a local primary, with as many as 70 other Catholic schools in the diocese.

Parents say the diocese and governors at Our Lady of Lourdes in Wanstead failed to properly consult on the plans and are calling for a fresh vote on academisation after a new, full consultation. The school did not respond to a request for comment.

Parent campaigner Vicky Taylor, who has two sons at the school, told Schools Week the group was not “all anti-academy” but felt it had been “frozen out”.

Taylor’s son joins the protest

“If we’d had a proper consultation it would have made all the difference. If this is to the benefit of everybody and such a good thing, then why are you not sharing that with us?

“Everybody loves the school. No one wants to take legal action. But when you’re not being engaged with, there’s only so much you can do.”

Legal action is also being mounted in Hertfordshire after a group of parents dismissed a consultation into Woodside primary joining Ivy Learning Trust as “flawed”, and demanded a “fair and meaningful consultation period”, the Hertfordshire Mercury reported.

The challenges leave schools facing hefty legal bills. It’s estimated a one-day judicial review incurs legal costs of between £25,000 and £40,000 for each party.

Julie McCulloch, the director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said guidance should be “tightened up”.

“It’s right the consultation is advisory, it’s right it’s the governing body’s final decision, but we would advise it makes that decision knowing the views of its key stakeholders, particularly parents.

“The earlier it consults and the more meaningfully it consults, the more likely it is it will make a decision that takes the views of those stakeholders on board.”

Last year parents in east London mounted a legal challenge against plans for Avenue Primary to join the EKO trust, complaining of a lack of consultation and concerns over the impact on staff. Backed by striking teachers, the group succeeded in getting permission for a judicial review into the legality of the process. The governing body scrapped the plans in May.

Failing schools that receive a directive academy order do not have to consult.

But Kevin Courtney, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said this should happen as parents were “entitled to know which trust is coming in and taking over their school and what they intend to do.

NEU joint general secretary Kevin Courtney.
Kevin Courtney

“If you’ve got an entire school community saying it doesn’t want this to happen then it should be listened to. It shouldn’t have to go to the length of the judicial reviews.”

Caraline Johnson, the head of education at the law firm Bates Wells, said: “Given how much discretion the governing body has, it would be quite difficult to challenge a consultation.

“And even if successful the likely outcome would be that the governing body had to redo it – a challenge would not be likely to stop the conversion, which tends to be what unhappy parents really want.”

She advised schools to consult parents, staff, other local schools and pupils, and for a consultation to last at least six weeks and preferably not over a school holiday.

Meanwhile, Dorset council has told the government it will be “testing the legality” of what it believes was a flawed consultation over the choice of the Aspirations trust to take over Budmouth College in Weymouth.

The council said that as a foundation school, the government must consult with school trustees and the person who appointed them.

Members of an interim executive board, appointed by the council, are currently acting as trustees. The council said neither had been consulted.

A spokesperson for the DfE said: “Schools carry out consultations regularly, on a variety of issues and we believe they are the experts on how best to consult and communicate with parents and the wider community.”

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  1. Mark Watson

    Unfortunately this is an area where unscrupulous people can take advantage of parents. It is always the right thing for a governing body to consult fully with parents, teachers, the local community etc. but as pointed out above this is consultation, not a vote.

    I cannot believe there is ever a scenario where it is appropriate to have a judicial review of the decision to become an academy. The costs are eye-watering, and if successful it doesn’t change the decision it simply means the governing body have to go through the process again, after which they’re probably going to come to the same conclusion.

    This doesn’t mean that parents and teachers don’t have a part to play. If there is a large groundswell of opposition to becoming an academy this may sway the governing body’s decision, but going through a formal and expensive judicial review process would have no bearing on that.

    Genuinely depressing to read that story on Woodside Primary School. If legal action goes ahead the parents and school will be throwing tens of thousands of pounds down the toilet for no good reason. Money that could have been used to make a significant difference at the school.

  2. Effective stakeholder communication and a thorough and meaningful consultation are an essential element of the acacemy conversion process. Getting the timing right is also important. Whilst consulting as early as possible in the school’s thinking is the best approach it’s also important that a school knows what exactly it is consuling on – ie, governance model, structural implications, asset transfers, what will change and what will stay the same etc. so that consultation is meaningful. This is often easier to set out for stakeholders when a school is considering joining an existing academy trust that has known structures, policies and processes; but takes more planning when a group of schools are forming a new trust together, as there are stages in the design and conversion process that the schools would need to have defined to enable them to consult meaningfully on.
    This timing dynamic makes it important for schools to have a clear stakeholder engagement plan as part of their academy project that sets out the stages and phases of communication and consultation, and using appropriate approaches for their school communities. Schools, whether they are joining an existing trust or working with others to form a new trust, should ensure that they consider and include all types of stakeholders, the communication and consultation methods used, the timing of communications vs consultation, the implications for faith schools, and where appropriate providing the information in various languages. This aspect of any school’s academy considerations should be given the right level of focus in the arcademy plans, and the governors should ensure that they have considered the views gathered during the consultation when making their conversion decisions, whilst they remain responsible for the decision. In our experience, effective communication and consultation during an academy project should not be underestimated.