A multi-academy trust that initially refused to comply with a Department for Education direction to accept a looked-after child has now taken the pupil on roll, it has emerged.
As Tes revealed in February, Coastal Academies Trust in Kent told the DfE that it would accept more looked-after children only if the education secretary took personal responsibility for their wellbeing (“I won’t accept looked-after children unless Damian Hinds oversees their safety, says academy chief”).
This was despite the DfE’s Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) writing to the MAT, warning that its refusal risked breaking the terms of its funding agreement.
Headteachers from the trust argued that the areas covered by their schools were unsafe, and that social workers from other areas – mainly London boroughs – should stop placing vulnerable children there.
Now Tes understands that a government minister has indeed put his name to an official demand, and that the MAT has subsequently accepted the child. However, the order was signed by academies minister Lord Agnew, rather than by Hinds.
Paul Luxmoore, the MAT’s executive head, concedes that the letter does not spell out that Agnew is taking personal responsibility for the child concerned.
But he says: “The fact that he wrote and signed the letter was good enough to link him personally to the practice of sending looked-after children to Thanet.
“I know that, one day, this practice will be viewed as a scandal – and I want it to be clear that politicians knew about it and were directly and personally involved, not just civil servants.”
If a maintained school refuses to accept a looked-after child, it can be ordered to do so by the local authority. But in the case of academies, the local authority has to refer the case to the ESFA, which can then issue a direction to the academy to accept the child.
For Sally Kelly, chair of the National Association of Virtual School Heads, which represents those who oversee the education of looked-after children, the Coastal Academies Trust case raises serious questions about the balance of power in the academies system.
“Essentially, you’ve got a headteacher demanding his own special treatment, and he’s getting it,” she says.
With power comes – or ought to come – accountability. Kelly says that it is extraordinary that an academy has pushed the limits of its powers at the same time as seemingly deferring responsibility for its pupils upwards to ministers.
“He’s the headteacher of that school and he needs to take accountability for the children who are in his school,” she says. “What it comes down to is academies have got a lot of power and very few accountabilities.”
The DfE declined to state how many times ministers had put their names to orders of this kind, or to confirm whether the Coastal Academies Trust case was the first such example.
But it is highly unusual for rows such as this to escalate up to ESFA level, let alone ministerial level. A parliamentary question from Labour shadow education minister Emma Lewell-Buck in May revealed that the ESFA had received 28 referrals from local authorities since March 2017. However, only four of these resulted in a formal direction.
Responding to Lewell-Buck’s question, schools minister Nick Gibb put a positive spin on the low number, saying it was because the ESFA had “successfully worked with local authorities and academies”.
Informally, local authorities say that they often do not bother making referrals in the first place, because of the length of time it takes for the ESFA to respond – up to 99 days, according to Tes findings published earlier this year. In the meantime, children are often left without a full-time education, and foster placements can break down.
This means that referrals are sometimes withdrawn by local authorities before the ESFA has reached a decision: there were five withdrawals in the year to October 2017, the period covered by Tes’ February investigation.