The Education and Adoption Bill 2015
What does it mean for schools and academies?
First a note of caution. It is important to remember that a Bill is only a draft and often the legislation eventually passed by Parliament is substantially different from the first draft.
Main aim of the bill
The Bill is aimed at schools requiring improvement and particularly the powers and processes to deal with them. If a school is performing well it is unlikely to have any noticeable impact for them. The Bill contains a provision requiring all schools with an Ofsted rating of category 4 to become academies. This extends the existing policy presumption to a legal requirement. Of course many of those schools are already in the system or working towards academy status. DfE expects an extra 300 schools will be added by this extension to the programme. There will be no alternative or Spartan stand for these 300. It is a fair number, but if you think it is low then please keep reading.
The main interest in the Bill has been the introduction of the concept of “coasting schools”. Coasting schools will also be subject to intervention. The Bill itself does not define what "coasting" means and at the moment it is still a bit of a mystery. However, our friends within the DfE have indicated that the definition will be based on educational performance and pupil progress over time not Ofsted reports. They have also told us the definition will be published while the Bill is going through parliament, so will be publicly available before the Bill becomes law. The intention seems to be to catch schools where results are slipping, so depending on how the terms are phrased, how the new system is operated and indeed how harsh the exam boards markers are will determine how many more schools are targeted. It could certainly be a lot more than 300.
The intention is that “coasting schools” will become subject to a broad range of measures which could be taken to address the school’s particular issue(s). There are no further indications at this stage what those are, but we can all take educated guesses. The majority of the Bill gives the Secretary of State for Education similar powers as Local Authorities already have to issue warning notices to maintained schools. These powers would be delegated to Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs) to act on behalf of the Secretary of State. The Bill also amends the warning notice procedures so they are more flexible to deal with a variety of potential issues that can arise in schools. Currently notices have to be dealt with in a 15 day timeframe, but in the future the notice itself would specify a timeframe, so for example a school could be subject to a warning notice based on educational attainment until the outcome of its next set of results which could be months away. Whereas a safeguarding or governance matter, which can and should be dealt with promptly would be subject to a much shorter period.
Regional School Commissioner powers
RSCs will be given the same powers as Local Authorities to require Governing Bodies to enter into support arrangements such as with an NLE or a school improvement partner.
More powers for the DfE over conversions
In relation to schools that must be converted to academy status the Bill contains significant new powers for the DfE in relation to the actual conversion process. First by imposing a legal obligation on the LA and the Governing Body to "facilitate" the conversion and second by providing powers for the DfE to issue directions and timescales for actions to be taken. This potentially allows DfE to become more proactive and involved in processes. Of course this should not be the norm, but would allow the DfE to step in and issue directions if there were disagreement between the School, LA and Academy sponsor for example on historic liabilities or land issues. It is important to remember that the powers only apply to the forced sponsored conversions not all academy projects.
Opportunities for sponsors
There will be more opportunities for academy sponsors who are capable of taking on these schools. Again at this early stage there is no information on any new commitments that sponsors will need to sign up to in relation to actually delivering improvements, but we do not envisage much difference from what sponsors are already doing. The DfE has promised to give further thought to how other schools in a MAT may be protected from the impact of one underperforming school in the group. The simple answer may be to give them more money, but I doubt that would be popular with the Treasury.
The Bill contains no real surprises. It strengthens the DfE’s powers and these will develop the RSCs existing role.
Local Authorities and others may point out that the Bill does not contain provisions to deal with underperforming academies and we all know there are some. However, the DfE respond to that by saying they are already in the academy system and are being dealt with. Where sponsor arrangements have failed to deliver the DfE will make further directions and if necessary force changes to sponsors to drive up standards.
We will update this note when there is more detail as the Bill goes through Parliament and becomes law.
If you would like to discuss any aspect of this article further, please contact Tim Wrigley or any member of the Wrigleys' Education team on 0113 244 6100.
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The information in this article is necessarily of a general nature. Specific advice should be sought for specific situations. If you have any queries or need any legal advice please feel free to contact Wrigleys Solicitors