The looming general election will regulate the conduct of public bodies, including the DfE, local authorities – and schools. You might, for instance, face a four-month wait for a decision on an academy conversion
Purdah, a word of Persian origin, means “curtain”. It’s also a word that we hear a lot of every four years or so in the UK, as it also refers to the pre-election period – specifically the time between the election announcement and results.
The purdah period regulates theconduct of public bodies (including the Department for Education) in the weeks before an election. Caution is required over decisions that could have a bearing on matters relevant to the election, that is, decisions on actions with a long-term character and policy decisions on which the newly elected government may take a different view.
Purdah for the next election runs from March 30 until election day on May 7. This could be a problem if you are planning a big project such as an academy conversion, changing the age range of your school or a big building project.
People are already becoming wary, including local authorities and the department. They are cautious when making decisions, particularly any that would attract public attention or that might influence support for a particular political party or candidate. They need to be seen to act in a politically neutral manner. If you ask for something now that will take a bit of time to implement, it is possible that your project – and possibly even the decision regarding that project – will be delayed until after the election.
Be careful when allowing political discussions in your school hall
One example is academy conversions. The current feeling from the DfE is that schools converting to become academies will not be able to convert (as their funding agreements will not be signed) from April 1 possibly until as late as July 1 – although this has not been confirmed yet. The proposed longer time period is to allow “bedding in” for the new government and the implementation of its policies to take effect. Labour has said that it would not arbitrarily cancel conversions/free schools that are in the pipeline; however, there is uncertainty about the future.
Once an election is called, candidates are legally entitled to use publicly funded schools and other public meeting rooms free, subject to caretaking costs. However, a fair and consistent approach must be taken, that is, a debate organised through a school should only be held if all political parties fielding candidates in the relevant area are given the opportunity to take part. So be careful when allowing political discussions in your school hall.
The local authority has a responsibility to ensure that its resources, including school resources that are paid for by the authority’s money, are not used for political purposes during an election period. Headteachers and school staff should not be involved in any activity that promotes or is perceived to promote a political party or candidate, including endorsing a politician verbally or in writing, being involved in photo opportunities and organising
events that could give others platforms for political comment.
So what does the future for education look like? It could include £2.5 billion for the pupil premium (Lib Dems), three million apprenticeships (Conservative), ensuring all teachers are qualified (Labour), bringing free schools and academies under local authority control (Green) or schools investigated by Ofsted on the presentation of a petition to the DfE signed by 25 per cent of parents or governors (UKIP) . . . or something entirely different. Only time will tell but in the meantime you should keep an eye on who you are renting your school hall to and any political promoting!
Jade Kent is a solicitor in the education team at Michelmores LLP