Academies and “Free Schools”: Locally accountable governance?

The introduction of academies to the education landscape in the last decade saw a change in the role and function of school boards of governors. In addition, the role of the Local Education Authority (LA) has diminished to such an extent that Essex County Council’s own website advises interested parties of the following:

“Schools are now largely self-governing. All manage their own budgets; many employ their own staff, own the land and buildings and only come into contact with the LA when they choose to make use of our services. The LA has strict guidelines it has to follow in its relationship with schools. In general, the LA has a closer relationship with community and voluntary controlled schools, because it still employs the staff and sets the admissions criteria. “

Existing schools that choose to convert to academies have so far tended not to radically change the make-up of their boards of governors and as a result parent and staff representation is maintained. In many cases, the LA also continues to have a presence as schools see the benefit of the services they can still provide, for example in co-ordinating admissions between multiple schools, and can demonstrate an independent link to the local community.

However, as the LA statement above attests, academies are under no legal obligation to provide this community presence on their board of governors. Furthermore, the 2010 Academies Act confirms that the “Academy Trust” has almost total control over the size, shape and appointment process of the school’s governing body.

In Brentwood, the Anglo European School and St Martin’s School have converted to become Academies since 2010. This year Shenfield High School is seeking Academy status and the proposed Becket Keys Church of England School will also be constituted on that basis. In both cases, the identity of the “Trust” and the formation of the Board of Governors is key to providing accountability to the local population. Fundamentally, the “Trusts” are entrusted with state funds and are accountable only to the Secretary of State for Education.

The following link from the Department for Education (DfE) provides Frequently Asked Questions regarding the governance of academy schools (which includes “free schools”). The answers provided should also be instructive to the forthcoming consultation process that Becket Keys are required to undertake.

http://www.education.gov.uk/schools/leadership/typesofschools/academies/academiesfaq/a0066020/governance-faqs

Many questions arise from these FAQs but, for now, we will concentrate on two elements in particular that demand openness:

Who will form the “Trust”?

An academy trust is a charitable company responsible for the running of the academy and has control over the land and other assets. It has a strategic role in running the academy, but delegates management of the school to the governors.”

Shenfield High School (SHS) are in the process of conversion and a very useful presentation on their plans, which includes a step by step guide to gaining funding, can be found by following this link:

http://vle.shenfield.essex.sch.uk/index.phtml?d=218316

What is not clear from this or the SHS site is who will form the trust. Educating Brentwood encourages SHS to clarify their plans for trust formation for the information of the wider community and will be seeking clarification on the current status of the consultation in the near future.

According to their website, the Becket Keys “Trust” will “comprise: The Church of England Diocese of ChelmsfordRussell Education Trust and the founding headteachers.”

Should the funding agreement with the DfE be agreed, the trust will be in charge of state assets and funds. The names of those in the trust should be provided during the consultation for transparency and so that the local community know who is accountable for the proper use of our taxes. The identity and role of those representing the “Russell Education Trust” is particularly important as they are a private company with no local links at all.

Who will govern the school?

The governing body will be appointed by the academy trust. The process for governor elections is set out in the articles of association and agreed between the academy trust and the Secretary of State. There will be no maximum size for the governing body. However, when negotiating the size of a governing body we do advise that large numbers can make governing bodies unwieldy and difficult to manage.

Membership of the governing body should include at least two parent governors and the principal, but academies are free to choose whether to have for example a local authority governor, staff governor or co-opted governor.”

The SHS presentation seems to contain a clear commitment to maintaining the make-up of the governing board including community involvement. As stated previously, this follows the trend of existing schools converting to Academy status.

The Becket Keys website states the following:  “trustees may choose to take places on the Governing Body or may wish to elect Governors to represent them. Parents, staff and local community representatives would also be invited to join the Governing Body; parent and staff representatives will be elected soon after the school opens in September 2012.”

There appears to be a welcome approach to inclusion of the local community here, but note that the “Trust” may also be part of the Board and also that representatives will be “invited” by the trustees. The process by which representatives are appointed is unclear and, as it is in the gift of the “Trust”, a full understanding of how this will operate and the method by which the proposed school will provide accountability to the community should be clarified by the consultation.

Brentwood tax-payers deserve accountability.

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