There are many different types of schools currently operating in the UK, both state funded and independent, for example, community schools, foundation and trust schools, voluntary aided schools, academies and city technology colleges. These schools sometimes form part of a two-tier system of education with primary and secondary schools or a three-tier system with first, middle and secondary schools.
Local councils and the Department for Children, Families and School (DCFS) often put forward proposals to change the type and/or organisation of education, some of which are not supported by local parents or children. Leigh Day has been instructed by a number of such individuals across the UK who wish to challenge proposals to close schools, reorganise education and, in particular, set up academies and faith schools.
Academies are independently managed schools set up by sponsors from business, faith or voluntary groups in partnership with the Department for Education and Skills.
A Funding Agreement negotiated between the DCFS and the sponsor, determines how academies are run providing sponsors with the freedom to shape the school in accordance with their views and belief. The extensive statutory protections that exist for parents and pupils at maintained schools are not provided for at academies and as a result, they have proved controversial and unpopular with many.
St Mary Magdalene Academy: A parent whose children attended St Mary Magdalene Primary School instructed Leigh Day regarding a proposal to close the school and replace it with an academy. At the time, St Mary’s was a successful and popular primary school in Islington which scored higher than local and national averages in the league tables.
In 2005, its Governing Body published a proposal to discontinue the school and replace it with an academy sponsored by the London Diocesan Board for Schools. In March 2006, the Schools Adjudicator approved this proposal and determined that the school could close.
Ms Powers issued judicial review proceedings against this decision, arguing that the draft funding agreement presented by the Diocesan Board for the proposed academy weakened the rights and protections currently enjoyed by parents and pupils at the Primary School, raising Article 6 and Article 14 (read with Article 2 Protocol 1 and Article 6) rights of the European Convention of Human Rights.
The High Court found against her. However, the case led to significant changes and improvements to the government’s academies scheme, in relation to consultation and also the terms of proposed funding agreements.
At the time, Ms Powers commented that whilst disappointed at the outcome of the case, she was pleased that the judge had recognised the Adjudicator needed to consider representations from parents and pupils about the rights and protections that the likely funding agreement would give them at the academy, thereby bringing an end to the Government's practice of forcing parents and pupils to agree to the closure of their existing schools without being told what is going to replace them. She also stated that she was pleased that, during this case, the Government has announced improvements to its model funding agreement and to the way in which it will deal with funding agreements for new academies.
Camden Academy: Leigh Day is currently instructed by a resident and parent of Camden, Ms Chandler, about the decision to set up an academy in her borough, sponsored by University College London (UCL).
The academy proposal was given the go ahead by the Council and Secretary of State earlier this year. However, Ms Chandler does not believe either of their decisions are lawful. She argues that the Council’s refusal to hold a competition into what type of school should be set up is unlawful and that the Secretary of State has failed to act in accordance with EU procurement regulations in relation to the appointment of UCL as sponsor. The EU regulations require the Secretary of State to act in a transparent and non-discriminatory manner when granting public contracts.
The Council and Secretary of State disagree. They assert that a competition was not required and that the EU regulations do not apply in relation to sponsors. Presently, it is unclear how local councils and/or the Secretary of State appoints sponsors and no advertisements are published, informing those who might be interested in running a school of the opportunity to bid.
A further hearing is to be held in November 2008 to determine whether Ms Chandler is correct. If the court finds in her favour, the ruling (particularly in relation to the EU procurement regulations) will have major repercussions on the government’s academy project as a whole. A large number of proposals to establish academies are currently being negotiated throughout the UK, all of which would have to be reviewed were it found that their current decision-making procedure is unlawful.
Sheppey Academy: Leigh Day was instructed by a mother of six whose children attend schools on the Isle of Sheppey regarding a proposal to reorganise education on the island from three-tier to two-tier system, with an academy being set up as the secondary school.
She was extremely concerned about this proposal and in particular the manner in which Kent County Council (KCC) was trying to implement it without listening to and considering parents’ views.
Late last year, she issued proceedings challenging the decision taken by the Council to close the first schools and one of the middle schools. The decision had been taken without providing parents and children with any proper information about the proposed academy. Given the link between the closure of the primary and middle schools and the proposed academy, this information was required by parents so they could properly assess the proposal. Without it, they were unable to meaningfully respond to the proposal.
This challenge was successful and the Council conceded the claim. They agreed to withdraw their decision and undertake proper consultation with the local population before deciding whether to go ahead with the reorganisation programme.
Jewish Free School: Leigh Day is currently representing the British Humanist Association (BHA) in a case concerning the admissions policy of JFS, a Jewish school situated in the north of London. The BHA is an intervener in the case. The school was accused of applying criteria, which were racially discriminatory and therefore in contravention of the Race Relations Act 1976. The school’s admissions policy favours children of Jewish descent over those raised in the practise of the faith.
The High Court dismissed the allegations of racial discrimination, arguing that the admissions criteria respected a religious and not a racial definition of the child’s status. The policy was therefore in keeping with government regulations that permit faith schools to favour adherents to their designated faith.
However, the BHA disagrees; to discriminate against a child on the grounds of religion is a violation of Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits any form of discrimination whether religious or racial. They have lodged an appeal and a hearing is due later in 2008.
Please contact Richard Stein or Rosa Curling for more information