What can academy trusts do to further support pupils, parents/carers and communities during the cost-of-living crisis?
We look at what further support trusts can offer to those in need and explore the legal issues trust leaders need to consider when providing support.
On 23 February 2023, the Department for Education (“DfE”) published the findings from its November 2022 school and college panel research. The findings include a stark reminder of the continued impact of the cost-of-living crisis on pupils, parents/carers and communities. Two-thirds (66%) of schools reported the number of pupils arriving hungry at school had increased since the start of the academic year. 75% reported an increase in pupils unable to pay for school trips, while 70% had seen an increase in pupils unable to buy or replace school uniforms or sports kits. The ongoing challenge is self-evident. In this article we will therefore look at what some trusts are already doing to support those in need and then identify some of the legal issues trust leaders must consider when supporting pupils, parents/carers and communities.
What are trusts already doing that seem to be working well?
Trusts and schools have been doing amazing things to support pupils, parents/carers and communities. We summarise a few examples here to share learning on what trusts are doing to help those in need.
- A number of trusts are offering or providing items of school uniform to pupils in certain groups, such as those starting in reception or year 7, to help with the initial cost of attendance. These activities support the provision of education, which is a trust’s primary purpose.
- Other schools have been giving free breakfast to all staff and a free lunch to those on playground duty. This is a staff benefit and so within a trust’s discretion to provide.
- Trusts have also increasingly been operating food banks using donated food. Where a trust allows others to use school premises to operate a food bank or trust employees volunteer their time to staff the provision, this is a legitimate means of supporting those in need.
- Similarly, a number of trusts are re-packaging surplus food and offering it to vulnerable families in the community, local food banks and charities. Trusts have also installed community fridges for pupils and parents and stocked them using leftover food. Since surplus food has to be disposed of, surplus food can be shared in this way. There may be some issue though where a school deliberately over stocks (and accordingly misapplies school funds) to support such activity.
- Trusts also support a range of charities including food banks through fundraising, volunteering and raising awareness. Where these activities do not use DfE grants and are educational, trusts are perfectly entitled to support others in this way.
There are also a range of other activities that trusts are doing, including
- breakfast clubs,
- extended before and after school clubs and school holiday clubs (where they offer more than simple child-care arrangements),
- child-care/beauty/hairdressing/motor mechanics where this offers work experience for students on an appropriate training course,
- discounted nursery places,
- cooking and language lessons for parents/carers,
- “how to” training for silver surfers, supported by pupil volunteers,
- free or discounted laptops and subsidised internet access for use by pupils and
- free or discounted school trips.
There is therefore a huge amount that trusts can potentially do (where they have the capacity) to support pupils, parents/carers and communities and help those in need. That said, there are also some important legal considerations to keep in mind before these activities are planned out and implemented.
Is the activity within your charitable objects?
As an exempt charity, the first legal issue a trust needs to consider when looking to support pupils, parents/carers and communities is whether the activity is within the trust’s charitable objects. These are found in article 4 of a trust’s articles of association and, subject as follows, will be ‘to advance for the public benefit education in the United Kingdom, in particular but without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing by establishing, maintaining, carrying on, managing and developing [academies]’. The objects will include further details depending on the different academies to be operated by the trust and whether the trust will operate Church of England academies. Where the trust operates Catholic schools, the objects will include ‘the advancement of the Catholic religion in the Diocese by such means as the Diocesan Bishop may think fit and proper by, but without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing, the establishing, maintaining, carrying on, managing and developing of Catholic schools in the United Kingdom conducted in accordance with the principles, and subject to the regulations and discipline of the Catholic Church.’ A trust must therefore consider whether the activity is education or supports the provision of education or, in the case of a Catholic trust, practices or supports the Catholic religion. Where an activity falls within the objects, the trust can do it. Where it doesn’t, the trust will be unable to carry out the activity.
Where any proposed activity doesn’t fall within the above objects, one option would be to amend article 4 to include a relevant object, such as the relief of those in need because of youth, age, ill-health, disability, financial hardship or other disadvantage. For example, the provision of meals for the elderly or vulnerable in the community alone would not be education or support the provision of education, and so would need the addition of the further object. However, the addition of the further object would require the consent of the Charity Commission, the DfE and, where relevant, the Diocese and those site trustees who own school premises. It is highly unlikely though that the required consents will be forthcoming. If a trust still wishes to proceed with the activity, it will therefore need to adapt the proposal so that it does fit within its existing objects. For example, it could provide meals for the elderly or vulnerable as part of a music concert performed by pupils and/or involve pupils another way as part of a character education or other component of the curriculum and, in so doing, position the activity as supporting the provision of education.
Where a trust supports communities by letting out its school sports and other facilities, this will also not constitute education or support the provision of education. There are many examples of school’s hiring out spaces, including for weddings and other community and private functions, but there are limits to what a trust can offer, governed by charity trading rules. These rules won’t apply, however, if the activity can be shown to fall within a trust’s objects which means again looking at whether the trust can amend its objects. In contrast to the above, though, the DfE has provided the following wording which may be added as a further object in article 4 for this purpose.
‘To promote for the benefit of the inhabitants of the areas in which the Academies are situated the provision of facilities for recreation or other leisure time occupation of individuals who have need of such facilities by reason of their youth, age, infirmity or disablement, financial hardship or social and economic circumstances or for the public at large in the interests of social welfare and with the object of improving the condition of life of the said inhabitants’
Again, the trust would require the consent of the Charity Commission, the DfE and, where relevant, the Diocese and those site trustees who own school premises. Here, though, the consents should be more forthcoming given the model wording provided by the DfE.
Is the activity funded from your DfE grant?
The second legal issue a trust will need to consider is how the activity is funded. If the activity is funded from a DfE grant and the terms and conditions of that grant include or permit the activity, the trust may use the grant to fund the activity. General Annual Grant may only be used to fund the normal running costs of each academy (i.e. for the benefit of pupils on roll) while Earmarked Annual Grant tends to be awarded for specific further purposes concerned with the operation of one or more academies. Capital grant funds building projects exclusively, and so would not be available to support with cost-of-living concerns. It is therefore unlikely that these grants may be used to fund wider community focussed activity. A trust must therefore fund the activity from other means, for example from donations or from trading income generated from the letting out of school facilities and/or the provision of education services to other organisations.
Trusts are doing amazing things to further support pupils, parents/carers and communities during the cost-of-living crisis and should be encouraged in this work. In order to avoid difficulties, though, individual trusts will need to
- plan or review their activities,
- consider whether each activity is within its charitable objects,
- check whether the activities are funded from DfE grant and
- seek legal advice where issues arise
How Wrigleys can help
The education team at Wrigleys is expert in helping trusts, schools and other charitable or not-for-profit education organisations govern their activities in compliance with their articles of association and the requirements of legislation and regulatory bodies.
Importantly, we work within the wider charities and social economy team at Wrigleys and so have a proven track record and expertise in advising trusts and other charities and not-for-profit organisations on their governance, compliance and regulatory requirements.
We also offer a governance review service to assess a trust’s effectiveness and compliance with best practice and the key requirements of the Academy Trust Handbook and the Master Funding Agreement.
We are therefore ideally-placed to advise trusts on their governance and compliance requirements and ensure their continued success.
If you would like to discuss any aspect of this article further, please contact Graham Shaw or any other member of the education team on 0113 244 6100.
You can also keep up to date by following Wrigleys Education on Twitter.
The information in this article is necessarily of a general nature. The law stated is correct at the date (stated above) this article was first posted to our website. 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.