First legal challenge against flagship school is just the beginning, warn lawyers. Graeme Paton reports
Tony Blair's academies programme will be subject to High Court scrutiny for the first time after a parent won the right to challenge plans for one of the flagship schools.
In a landmark move, a senior judge has agreed to hold a judicial review into the decision to close St Mary Magdalene primary school, Islington, north London, and replace it with an academy.
As independent state schools, academies can draw up their own rules on admissions, exclusions, special needs, religious education, collective worship and discipline.
It is claimed that the new school, which will be an "all-through" academy, catering for pupils aged three to 18, will harm children's human rights because safeguards granted to pupils at other state schools would be lost.
Lawyers acting for Hayley Powers, who has two children at St Mary Magdalene, said that the Office for the Schools Adjudicator had failed to take this into account when it approved plans to close the primary school.
Last week, Mr Justice Newman granted lawyers permission to challenge the decision in a hearing expected to take place later this summer. The court case could have implications for Mr Blair's plans to open 200 of the semi-independent state schools within the next four years. Critics say any legal scrutiny may prove embarrassing for the Government, especially as Lord Adonis, the junior minister for schools and architect of the flagship education programme, lives just a few streets away from the proposed school.
But the Church of England, which is sponsoring the pound;30 million academy, says it does not expect the hearing to delay plans to open in September 2007.
Tom Peryer, director of education for the London diocesan board for schools, said: "The fact that there is a judicial review will not slow the procedure. The school is scheduled to open on time, and two weeks ago we signed the funding agreement with the DfES, paving the way for that to happen."
Solicitors warned this week that it may be the first of a series of legal challenges against the schools. David Wolfe, of Matrix Chambers, the practice co-founded by Cherie Booth, the Prime Minister's wife, said lawyers were preparing to contest academies' alleged non-admission of children with special educational needs, "heavy-handed" disciplinary procedures and questionable complaints procedures.