Legal challenge threatened over forced academy switch

13th January 2012 at 00:00
Ministers' plans for 200 primaries face growing opposition

Like fun, becoming an academy seems to lose some of its allure when it is forced on you. Indeed, lawyers are preparing to challenge Michael Gove's right to force governors of primary schools up and down the country to embrace academy status.

Barrister David Wolfe of Matrix Chambers is representing Downhills Primary School in Haringey, north London, which has won major publicity this week for its campaign against forced academy status. Mr Wolfe has revealed that he is advising at least three other governing bodies on the same issue.

When the coalition government was first formed, academy status was offered only to outstanding schools. But conversion is now the official way forward for up to 200 primary schools that ministers believe are underperforming. Last week, the education secretary labelled those objecting to academies, including the campaigners in Haringey, the "enemies of promise".

Add to this the furore surrounding Downhills, and Mr Wolfe's suggestion that other primaries are testing their legal options, and it would seem clear that the government's plans for the 200 schools are not going to go ahead without serious controversy.

The Department for Education is clear that the policy is about consistent failure. "This is about rooting out underperformance and driving up standards, so that pupils reach their academic potential," a spokesperson said.

But at Downhills, which is currently under a notice to improve from Ofsted, the management team argues that the process of driving up standards is already under way and it has very publicly stated that the school does not need to be taken over.

Leslie Church became head of Downhills in 2004 when it was already in special measures. It came out of special measures in November 2005 and remained satisfactory in its 2008 inspection. But in January last year it was put under a notice to improve by Ofsted. The poor report came after 2009 Sats results in which 40 per cent of pupils achieved level 4 in both English and maths; the floor target introduced by the Conservatives is that 60 per cent of pupils should reach this level or be making sufficient progress.

The school said the Ofsted inspection triggered changes, which have been supported by a recent monitoring visit, and Mr Church has argued that the academy status decision should wait until after the next inspection, due within four months. "We wish that period to be given its full time rather than be sidetracked into looking for potential sponsors and other activities that go with changing from a local authority school into a sponsored academy," he said.

But the governors received notice in December that the education secretary was inclined to turn the school into an academy and were told to pass a resolution to become an academy with a named sponsor by 27 January - a deadline that has since been extended to 3 February.

Lawyers are now closely involved. Beth Handley of Hickman amp; Rose, the solicitor who is handling the case for those opposing the status change, claimed that the powers Mr Gove is using depend on Ofsted's judgement of the school, not its historic key stage 2 results. The published judgement is 12 months old and could be superseded in the next few weeks, which makes the directive premature.

The education secretary's lawyer has until 19 January to respond. However, it is improbable that this case will be a one-off, given that 199 other schools are likely to be put through the process.


Ofsted's verdict on Downhills Primary School, January 2011

"Attainment has been consistently low in the school for many years."

"There is not enough good teaching to ensure that all pupils make the good progress they need to improve their attainment sufficiently."

"Teachers have good relationships with pupils. Pupils' behaviour is good."

"Leadership and management are satisfactory."

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