Academy sponsor selection process faces court challenge

David Marley

A landmark legal challenge against the Government is to be launched, claiming that the way academy sponsors are selected breaks European competition and procurement laws.

The case, which will be heard next week at the High Court, is seeking to overhaul the method for choosing sponsors and force local authorities to hold open competitions when making their decisions.

It is being brought by a parent who lives in Camden, north London, following the decision to open an academy there backed by University College London.

Two judicial reviews, one against Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, and the other against Camden Council, will be heard at the same time.

Lawyers will argue that academy sponsors gain a commercial advantage through an increased public profile and therefore the way they are selected should be made more transparent.

The judicial review will be told that the way that Camden Council chose UCL as its sponsor was secretive and did not allow others the chance to compete.

Other potential sponsors, including the Church of England, were understood to be interested in backing the Camden school.

Rules that open competitions must be held between potential providers of new schools were introduced in a bid to increase the number of schools run by charities, faith and community groups. But the competition rules do not apply to academies, where sponsors are often decided behind closed doors.

Fiona Millar, a campaigner against academies and vice-chair of the Camden branch of the Campaign for State Education, said: "This pertains to Camden, but there's a national issue in the way the academies process works.

"The Government and councils can effectively give academies to sponsors without proper scrutiny. The process needs to be made much fairer.

"The competition process would allow scrutiny between different types of sponsors and also different kinds of schools, including trust schools and community schools.

"The key point is that the same rules should apply to academies as apply to other school bidders."

Richard Stein, a partner at Leigh Day Co Solicitors, who is representing the claimant, said he was confident that this first "hard-edged" challenge to the way academies are procured would be a success.

The opening of the Camden academy, expected in 2011, has been dogged by controversy, with lecturers from the university and a vocal local campaign protesting against it.

The site of the school, in a more affluent part of the borough, has been criticised for favouring middle-class pupils.

UCL has insisted that it will follow the council's admissions code and benefit pupils from all backgrounds. Children and staff at the academy will benefit from access to world-class academic facilities, the university has said.

Some local authorities have made the choice of academy sponsor more open. Westminster Council, in central London, held a competition for sponsors after deciding to press ahead with an academy to replace Pimlico School.

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David Marley

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