Department for Education officials are concerned that a regulatory black hole involving academies and free schools means the Government lacks powers to interfere in their running, and have advised ministers that further legislation may be required to address this shortfall.
In a leaked briefing paper on improving the management of academies and free schools, ministers are advised that plans to devolve oversight to new regional schools commissioners (RSCs) will highlight what little influence the department has over existing free schools and academy schools in England.
The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, argues that free schools and academies benefit from freedom of oversight from local authorities, however, the document suggests that the Government feels they are at a disadvantage and that more regulation in their favour is needed.
A leak from the same 40-page document – reported by the Observer in April – revealed that DfE officials had warned the "political ramifications of any more academies and free schools being judged inadequate are very high and speedy intervention is essential".
The legal status of academies and free schools is dependent on a contract between the body running the school and the Secretary of State for Education. The contract allows the DfE to stop funding a school but actually includes relatively few other powers should any problems arise with opposing school leaders.
So far, academy and free school officials have agreed to make changes requested by the DfE in controversial cases. But a clash between the DfE and a school’s trustees, sponsors and governors could bring unresolved legal questions to the fore.
Concerns over newly established free schools have included the controversial Al Madinah School in Derby, which required female teachers to wear headscarves and in February was ordered to close its secondary wing due to quality concerns.
Henry Stewart, a founder of the Local Schools Network and chair of governors of Stoke Newington school in Hackney, said new legislation was needed because of the "anarchic" structure set up by Mr Gove.
He added "Local people and local authorities are far better placed to spot what’s going on in a school than regional ambassadors or the distant office of the secretary of state".
In response, the DfE said: "We do not comment on leaked documents." However, a Whitehall source stressed that the DfE has always said it was prepared to intervene in the case of failing academies and free schools, and that ministers would be accused of dereliction of duty if they didn’t monitor any new schools.
New free schools are regularly visited by teams from the DfE before opening their doors to pupils, and school leaders have to submit a series of detailed reports on preparations, staffing and finance to receive final approval.
Specifically, ministers will retain direct control over what the document calls "extremism" in free schools, as well as decisions over which schools open and close, and major capital spending such as the purchase of sites.
With their greater financial freedoms, academies and free schools have the flexibility to use their budgets to expand and improve their teaching establishment. In doing so, careful financial planning is essential in order to achieve success and to satisfy the legislatory requirements placed on them. That is why working with those who have experience in academies issues, like Nicklin, is a sensible step. For more information on the services we provide for academies, please contact us.