ALL STATE SCHOOLS TO HAVE ACADEMY STATUS
The announcement in the March Budget that all state and maintained schools will become Academies or be in the process of obtaining Academy status by the end of 2020 has caused a significant debate on the potential impact of and suitability of this ground breaking change.
The government published a White Paper on 17 March 2016 setting out the framework for how they will achieve this.
High performing schools are to continue to apply to become Academy Trusts via the Regional School’s Commissioner. Local authorities would be under a duty to facilitate the process of all maintained schools becoming Academies, and where schools are underperforming new powers will be introduced to ensure the schools become Academies in a faster timescale.
Where schools are not Academies or have not started the relevant process by 2020 the government will direct for schools to become Academies so that by 2022 local authorities no longer maintain schools. The multi-academy trust (“MAT”) framework is likely to be expanded to enable schools to join together to form part of existing trusts and to tap into the experience of previous Academy conversions.
WHY SCHOOLS NEED TO PREPARE NOW
Schools need to prepare now because the legal process of transferring or leasing the school land can often be a protracted and complicated process depending on the history and nature of the school. Clarification should be sought at the earliest stages of the status of and ownership of the schools property to ensure that the conversion timetable can be met.
The type of title the local authority or governing body have i.e. freehold or leasehold or sharing arrangements or rights over school land enjoyed by third parties (e.g. scout huts and youth clubs) can also cause issues in separating out the school from the local authority’s or governing body’s responsibility.
All of those issues have to be disclosed as part of the usual due diligence process with the Department for Education (DfE) when the land questionnaire is submitted prior to conversion.
Many state schools are community schools. The freehold is owned by the local authority who grants an 125 year lease at a peppercorn rent in the model form prescribed on the DfE website.
The government’s White Paper has confirmed that to speed up the conversion process land held by local authorities for those schools will transfer to the Secretary of State for Education who will then grant a lease to the Academy Trust.
However, for other schools there could be issues regarding their constitution or land still held by trustees or whether land is publicly or privately owned which could complicate the conversion process and the transfer of the land ownership because third party involvement or consents may be required.
The government have indicated in the White Paper that they are keen to work with churches and faith groups both nationally and regionally to ensure that all church and faith schools are to become Academies.
The ownership of schools’ land can be complex because of the way that schools have evolved. Steps should be taken now and specialist advice sought to ensure the process is as efficient and painless as possible and the required timetable can be met.