A LEGAL threat by parents has forced an Islington school to abandon its plans to become a new academy – which would see it opt out of local authority control – in a move that observers say could have implications across the country.
Governors at William Tyndale School decided to plough ahead with the plans last month, despite complaints by parents that they had not been given enough time to respond to a consultation.
A parents’ petition opposing the academy plan gathered 200 signatures in just three days.
So furious were the parents – even some who supported the academy plans – at the way views were ignored that they consulted lawyers.
The lawyers said that the consultation was so flawed it could be challenged in the courts and so the parents threatened the primary school with litigation.
Sources say the school’s lawyers agreed that the case could be challenged, forcing governors to abandon their plans.
Turning primary schools into academies – which receive their funds directly from Whitehall – is a key reform under the Coalition government and Conservative education secretary Michael Gove.
Observers say that Strictly Education, the private company running the William Tyndale consultation, did follow the guidelines under the new rules. That its consultation is so open to challenge
reveals that the new academy rules are flawed. It is understood that parents across the country are planning legal actions of their own. Crucially, the school failed to carry out an assessment of the
impact changing its status would have on the wider community, especially in terms of equality – how it would affect people of different religions, gender and disabilities.
Supporters of the academy plans claim they will give schools greater control over their budgets, and more cash.
Opponents say the schools will no longer be accountable to elected officials – the council – and question what would happen in an emergency, such as a fire. They would also lose extra benefits,
such as free school meals.
None of the parents at William Tyndale was willing to speak this week. In a letter to them, the chair of governors, Professor Jonathan Weber, said: “The governing body has taken legal advice and,
separately, considered the wider impact on the school of any contested litigation.
“Whatever the legal merits of the claim, the governing body has concluded that it is not in the interests of the school to become engaged in litigation that may take many months and would expose
the school to very considerable (and probably irrevocable) legal costs.
“We have also taken into account the inevitably divisive effect of such protracted litigation within the school community.”
He goes on to say, however, that the consultation will be reopened and a decision taken in September.
Labour councillor Richard Watts, the Town Hall’s education chief, said that this still did not give parents enough time to make their minds up and consider all the arguments – there are only two
weeks of term time left. He called for a full parental ballot.
“This is an irrevocable decision that will affect generations of children,” he said.
The school, in Richmond Grove, has battened down its hatches, with no governors or parents willing to talk to the press.
However, it is understood that parents were furious when the governing body refused to accept the 200-signature petition when they met to make their decision. The Tribune has also been told that
the governing body is not at full complement and no elections have been held to fill the vacancies, which could also void any decision it makes.
Ken Muller, assistant branch secretary of the National Union of Teachers in Islington, said the NUT had concerns about the consultations at the three schools that have recently tried to convert to
academies in Islington.
The others are New North Community School, which is going ahead with academy status, and Poole’s Park, in Finsbury Park, which has shelved plans for the time being.
“We didn’t think they carried out the consultation correctly in the first place,” he said. “We have lots of concerns about the consultations in the three schools that have recently tried to go for
academy status. There is a group of parents at William Tyndale who are determined to secure a proper right of consultation. I gather they are not exactly happy with the outcome as it is.”
Cllr Watts added that the legal threat called into question the role of Strictly Education, which would provide services to any opted-out school and organised the consultation.
He went on: “This is an irreversible decision and extremely risky. I’m very concerned about governors rushing in on poor advice that is going to have consequences for children in this community
for years to come.”
A spokesman for the Anti-Academies Alliance added: “It’s of no surprise to me that there are problems with the conversion of William Tyndale to academy status. This is because the Academies
Act, which was the brainchild of Michael Gove, is flawed because it does not set out proper procedure for consultation.”
The school did not respond to requests for a comment. However, Professor Weber added in his letter: “Members of the governing body consulted widely prior to the decision [to become an
academy] and conducted extensive research as to the relative risks and benefits of conversion.”
Published: 15th July, 2011
by ANDREW JOHNSON