In 2000, the then Labour government saw a gap in the country’s educational landscape - the Academies programme was born.
Academies are publicly funded independent schools that benefit from greater freedoms to help them innovate and raise standards of schooling in the UK. Key freedoms enjoyed by academies include a freedom from local authority control, an ability to set pay and conditions for staff, the option not to follow the National Curriculum and the discretion to change the lengths of terms and school days.
Over the last ten years, the academies vista has changed. Historically, academies were established by sponsors from business, faith or voluntary groups who worked with partners from the local community to replace poorly performing schools. The process was long and fraught with administrative difficulties. Today, schools – both poorly performing and schools rated “outstanding” by Ofsted – are looking to convert without the help of an external sponsor in accelerated programmes.
The Academies Act 2010
The introduction of the Academies Act 2010 is evidence of the Government’s desire to expand the Academies programme – the Academies Act 2010 offers all maintained primary, secondary and special schools in the UK the opportunity to convert to academy status.
Initially the focus was on the conversion of schools rated “outstanding” by Ofsted – the first of these new academies opened in September 2010. These schools do not have a sponsor but instead are expected to work with underperforming schools to help raise standards.
However, the new fast track conversion programme now offered by the Academies Act 2010 is seeing more and more schools complete the conversion process.
Academies as exempt charities
Academies are operated by companies limited by guarantee. Until the implementation of the Academies Act 2010, an academy had to apply to the Charity Commission to be registered as a charity. This process, although necessary, could be lengthy and was often costly due to heightened levels of enquiry by, and the extensive requirements of, the Charity Commission.
From the 1 January 2011, however, all academies, whether formed under the Academies Act 2010 or previous legislation will become exempt charities. As an “exempt charity”, an academy will not need to formally register with the Charity Commission (although it will still be subject to various charitable laws and regulations that will govern its operation) and will not have a unique charitable number.
The Charity Commission has confirmed that it will not be accepting any new applications in respect of the registration of academies as charities, and will not be completing the process in respect of outstanding applications as those academies will also deemed to be “exempt charities” under the new law.
The regulation of Academies
It must be highlighted that although an academy is no longer required to register with the Charity Commission, it will still be required to comply with applicable charity law.
The Academies Act 2010 envisaged that all academies (new and old) would cease to be regulated by the Charity Commission and would instead be subject to regulation by the Young People's Learning Agency (YPLA).
However, the transfer of responsibility to the YPLA was delayed just before Christmas 2010. This delay reflects the fact that the YPLA is on the list of quangos “at risk” and that the Government is considering the potential replacement of the YPLA with a new body called the Education Funding Agency in April 2012. At the time of writing there is no official indication of when a decision will be made and in the interim, the YPLA will act as the de facto regulator of academies.