Victorian legislation known collectively as the School Sites Acts can still have an impact on school sites today as many state schools have their origins in land conveyed under the terms of those Acts. Before the Elementary Education Act 1870 made the first steps toward the provision of nationwide compulsory education at the public expense, the provision of schools in many parts of the country was inadequate. The beginning of the nineteenth century saw a burgeoning support, particularly from voluntary societies, for the more widespread availability of elementary education.

School Sites Acts

The School Sites Acts comprise the School Sites Act 1841(‘1841 Act’), 1844, 1849, 1851 and 1852 (‘1852 Act’). They were enacted to encourage landowners to give land for local schools. The donations were usually conveyed to private trustees. Since then much of the gifted land has transferred to local education authorities who have taken on the functions of those Victorian trusts. 

To come within the 1841 Act the gift has to be of up to one acre of land as a site for:

  • a school for the education of poor persons;
  • the residence of a school master or mistress; or
  • otherwise for the purposes of the education of poor persons in religious and useful knowledge.

The gift did not need to be expressed in the actual words of section 2 of the 1841 Act but the stated purpose must be within the scope of one or more of the three purposes mentioned in it.

The 1852 Act extended the provisions to sites of up to two acres for schools or colleges, including associated teachers’ residences, for ‘the sons of yeomen, tradesmen or others’ in connection with religious or educational training.

Reverter

To encourage the giving of land for schools, provision was included in section 2 of the 1841 Act for the land to revert back to the landowner, or their heirs, if it ceased to be used for the purposes for which it was given.

Cessation of use is a question of fact. For example, if the purpose is for ‘a school for the education of poor persons’, that use clearly ceases on the permanent closure of the school as an institution. The land will not cease to be used as a school for the education of poor persons simply because it is also used for the education of persons who are not poor. The use of the school as a special needs school, following closure for the education of the poor, will not necessarily constitute a cessation of use if the special needs school is intended to educate poor people, but will be a cessation of use if it does not serve that purpose.

Where the original site is sold or exchanged for a replacement site under section 14 of the 1841 Act, reverter does not occur. This provision recognises that the original site may become too small and that adjoining land may not be available for expansion.

When a reverter of land occurs under section 2 of the 1841 Act, those in possession of the land at that time had to identify the donor, or their successors, as the persons entitled under the reverter. Problems arose when those persons cannot be identified or found. The school authorities had no power after reverter to dispose of or even to use the land. As the grants of land were made a long time ago, finding those persons entitled became increasingly difficult.

Trust of Land

The Reverter of Sites Act 1987 (‘1987 Act’), which came into force on 17 August 1987, abolished the reverter of land under the School Sites Acts, replacing it with a trust of land. Those in possession of the land at the time of reverter are given the status of trustees, enabling them to manage the land, keep it in repair, or sell it. The trustees hold the land or the proceeds of sale on trust for the benefit of the persons who would have been entitled under the reverter if the 1987 Act had not been passed, referred to as ‘beneficiaries’.

If the reverter took place before 17 August 1975 (i.e. twelve years prior to the commencement of the 1987 Act), the title of the beneficiaries will be time-barred and their rights extinguished, unless they can establish that the running of time against them under the Limitation Acts is postponed or prevented (e.g. that they were minors or lacked capacity).

If the reverter occurs on or after 17 August 1975, the land is held on trust for the beneficiaries, subject to the right of the trustees to ask the Charity Commission to establish a scheme under section 2 of the 1987 Act, extinguishing those rights and setting up new charitable trusts on which the trustees are to hold the land. The establishment of a scheme requires a notification procedure to be completed and will be subject to the right of the beneficiaries to claim, within a period of five years, an amount equal to the value of their rights at the time of their extinguishment.

Implications

Reverter has continuing practical and financial implications:

  • it continues to be an issue that can impact school sites, whether that is on the closure of Victorian schools no longer suitable for modern purposes, the sale of disused school sites surplus to requirement in order to generate income, the redevelopment of school sites or the conversion to Academy status; and
  • claims will continue to be made as beneficiaries become aware of their rights, which may result in pay-outs that are difficult to accommodate, particularly where sale proceeds have already been invested.