Today’s Mail Online article about the £18.6 million spent on Academy conversions tells only half the story. What isn’t reported is that schools are receiving conversion grants at a very early stage – before they have even completed the consultation, and the money they spend is not repaid in the event that the school decides not to become an Academy.
During our campaign against Academy conversion for Bournville School & Sixth Form Centre earlier this year, I began to suspect that the school had already received the government’s £25000 conversion grant despite being still in the early stages of consultation. The school had already employed a legal firm for advice and individual governors had mentioned the £25k as being the source of funding.
The DfE makes it clear, however, that the £25K can only be claimed once an application to convert has been approved. An application to convert, furthermore, represents a ‘firm commitment’ on the part of the Governing Body. In order to ensure that this is the case the DfE requires that minutes showing that a resolution to convert has been taken be submitted with the application. This seems eminently sensible, after all it would be crazy to hand out £25k willy-nilly to any school that happened to be considering the pros and cons of Academy status – wouldn’t it?
So how could Bournville already have the £25k if the school was still in the early stages of consultation with governors maintaining they had not made any formal decision to convert? A FOI request revealed that the Governing Body had in fact taken a resolution to convert three weeks before the consultation had begun and submitted an application to convert two weeks into the 12 week consultation. The school defended its actions to parents by maintaining the £25k is provided for consultation and therefore the application had to be submitted in order for consultation to take place. They assured concerned parents that this did not mean they had already made a decision and that the money would not have to be repaid if they decided not to convert.
On 27th Sept I attended a public meeting about Academy conversion for The Kingswinford School in Dudley. I had been invited to speak from a parent’s perspective about the concerns surrounding Academy status. A search for ‘consultation’ information on the school website beforehand revealed that Kingswinford had also applied to convert at a very early stage before consultation had begun. The difference being that at this school nobody was even pretending that the decision hadn’t already been made. Parents were invited via a link on the website (tucked away in a corner that you actually had to scroll down to find) to comment on the decision that had already been made. Any parent that had by chance found their way to this link would have been informed that ‘The Governing Body have decided to proceed with an application for us to become an Academy School. This is a very exciting moment in The Kingswinford School’s history!’ The consultation at Kingswinford was so completely non-existent, that the timing of the £25k grant was the least of anyone’s worries. Stunned parents sat in the meeting – the day before the end of the ‘consultation’ – having been totally unaware until that point that a consultation had even been taking place.
Three weeks later I was speaking at another school’s public meeting – Earls High School in Halesowen. Again Governors had already submitted the application. Just like Bournville School they maintained that the application did not represent a decision to convert, but that it was necessary in order to obtain the £25k grant for consultation.
The DfE guidance on the conversion grant in guidance for schools becoming academies is clear enough;
Academy conversion expenses
2.28 The school may incur costs on the processes involved in becoming an Academy, particularly for legal advice on documentation and staffing matters, HR advice for the TUPE process, plus the transfer of software licences and data transfer. There may also be re-branding costs (e.g. new signage and printing new stationery).
2.29 You can claim a grant of £25,000, as a contribution to the costs of conversion, which will be paid to the school’s bank account. This is not intended to cover the whole costs involved, but to be a contribution. Where a school is involved in a PFI contract and needs additional legal advice, support above this level may be agreed.
So why are schools like Bournville and Earls High misinterpreting the grant as being for consultation? Bournville School’s financial report showed that almost half of the £25k was expected to be paid to the legal firm they had employed during the consultation. Perhaps these schools are acting on the advice of lawyers who stand to gain from the very advice they are giving? When I put this to the Deputy Head of Bournville School he told me I was being cynical.
Why does the DfE allow schools that have made a ‘firm commitment’ to convert to withdraw from the process without repaying the £25k? The 2010 Academies Act is a mass of such inconsistencies, perhaps unsurprising considering the rushed way in which it was pushed through Parliament last year;
‘The Academies Bill was rushed through Parliament in July, using processes usually reserved for more urgent legislation. … The government compressed the Parliamentary process by taking out the committee stage of the Bill in the House of Commons – an unusual step usually reserved for anti-terror legislation and constitutional matters. It means the Bill did not receive the detailed scrutiny and debate to which legislation of this nature would normally be subjected to before being passed.’ The Reality Behind the Rhetoric, SecEd 2010
Birmingham Local Authority has reported that the advice of their legal team is that the Academies Act is legally flawed. Birmingham advises its schools that to apply to convert before consultation could leave them open to legal challenge, and that to consult on a decision already made is contrary to public law. The National Governors Association likewise urges caution and advises its members as follows;
‘The NGA is of the view that consultation should take place at an early stage of the process before governing bodies have applied for academy status, and that no governing body should submit an application to the DfE unless and until they have consulted their key stakeholders.’ GuidanceforNGAmembersontheAcademiesAct
All three schools mentioned are ‘good with outstanding features’. They are already providing excellent comprehensive education within the Local Authority. They are highly valued within their communities. The parents, students and teachers are not clamouring for Academy status. These schools are not broke. They do not need fixing.
Bournville School has now decided not to continue with Academy conversion. This was a happy result for the parents, students and teachers who campaigned so hard to keep the school for the community. It was a good result for the Governors too, who after all voted 15-2 not to proceed and can now say in all honesty that they have listened to the concerns of the community. Not so good for the taxpayer however, who in a time of cuts and austerity has needlessly spent £25k of the education budget without a penny of that having been spent on any child’s education. As for the legal firm, well they get paid either way.