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Academy schools fight due in court

By Jon Manel and Rosie Waites
Today programme

Mike Stephenson
Mike Stephenson is a key member of the Barrow campaign

Academy schools are a key part of the government's education policy in England. They are state schools which are run and sometimes partly financed by private sponsors. But it is now being claimed that European procurement laws are being broken when sponsors are appointed.

The government is due in court this week for a judicial review over a proposed academy in Camden in north London.

The BBC has learnt that parents in two other areas are planning to bring similar action.

Mike Stephenson owns The Last Resort cafe in Barrow, Cumbria. When he is not serving up cappuccinos and flapjacks to his customers he is busy helping mount a challenge to what has been one of the government's flagship policies.

Born and bred in Barrow, Mike Stephenson was elected to the borough council in May - unseating the incumbent Conservative council leader in Hawcoat ward.

He and three other anti-academy campaigners gained seats after they ran on a ticket of being opposed to Cumbria County Council plans to close three local comprehensives and open a single Barrow Academy in their place.

Lack of transparency

Having taken their fight this far, Mr Stephenson and his fellow campaigners are now hoping to take it to another level again - to the High Court.

"The basis for the legal action is that there's no transparency with the appointment of sponsors, we'd like to have seen more tendering for sponsors and more competition for sponsors," Mr Stephenson says.

He adds that as far as he is aware, the opportunity to sponsor the proposed school was not publicly advertised.

"I've seen no advertisements anywhere. These sponsors merely appeared from nowhere really," he says.

Sponsors are responsible for establishing and managing academies and have more control over the curriculum and the academy's general running than under the normal system. If they are financial sponsors, they have to raise up to 2m. The government pays the rest of the start-up costs.

Pupils at Trentham High School form an SOS in the playground
Parents are taking legal action to save Trentham High School in Stoke

Organisations such as businesses, charities, churches, universities and private schools can become sponsors. These are given a majority of places on the board of governors, which runs the academy's trust.

Roger Titcombe, a retired head teacher who used to run one of the Barrow schools threatened with closure, is another anti-academy campaigner.

He also says he is unclear about the process the council has gone through in order to attract sponsors.

"If there was a process it was and remains a secret."

Rosa Curling, from Leigh Day & Co Solicitors, is representing parents who are seeking to challenge the legality of the way sponsors have been chosen for proposed academies in their areas.

She believes the government has duties under EU community law and in particular the procurement directive, to ensure that when they award a public service contract they follow an open process - so that anyone who wishes to bid is aware of the opportunity.

We believe we could provide a much more compelling case to secure the future of this school than the route that's currently being taken

Ian Hookway
Save Trentham High Action Group

Ideally, she says, interested parties would "have an opportunity to put forward their proposal and the government can then decide in an open and transparent manner which organisation should be awarded the contract. At the moment there does not seem to be any process like that going on."

The parents in Barrow have just started their legal proceedings but are following in the footsteps of a similar challenge to a proposed academy school in Camden in north London.

And a third set of parents is taking legal action to protect the future of Trentham High School in Stoke which is also threatened by proposals to build an academy there.

Cooperative trust

Ian Hookway and other members of the Save Trentham High Action Group want to force a competition, giving interested parties - including themselves - the opportunity to help decide the type of new school they will get as well as who will run it.

"We believe we could provide a much more compelling case to secure the future of this school than the route that's currently being taken," Mr Hookway says.

Not only do they want an open and transparent process but as a group of parents they would like to apply to run the school.

"We actually would be prepared to put in for a cooperative trust school and take on the responsibility of running that school, crucially enabling the head and teaching staff and support staff to do what they do best - and that's get on with their job of improving the results which they've done for the last three years now," Mr Hookway adds.

The councils in Stoke, Cumbria and Camden all declined to be interviewed. The ultimate decision to appoint sponsors is made by the government, which says it will be rigorously defending itself against the legal action. It says it does not believe European procurement law is applicable to the selection of sponsors.

"The basis of the legal argument that we will contend is that we don't consider European procurement law to be applicable in the selection of sponsors because they raise money for a school rather than profit from it," Schools Minister Jim Knight says.

"We've got a perfectly open system in terms of people who want to come forward and suggest themselves to be academy sponsors, and then it's a question of us then marrying those up with projects that will work for the communities and the sponsors," he adds.

It is not only the children in Stoke, Barrow and Camden who could be affected by the legal action. Depending on the outcome it could potentially change the way sponsors are chosen for all future academy schools.

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