December 2011

The know zone

  • Take note
    Governance, finance, buildings, liabilities, personnel… increased autonomy lays bare a raft of rights and responsibilities that academies can’t ignore, says Richard Bird. More
  • Coining new terms
    Sam Ellis introduces a series of articles designed to help leaders adapt to a world in which curriculum planning is determined by what you can afford, not what you need. More
  • Lead vocals
    Quotes from Horace, Napoleon Hill, Maya Angelou, Frank A Clark. More
  • Permanent state of bliss?
    Ross Morrison McGill was made voluntarily redundant from his role as assistant head of an academy in London in August. He hopes to run his own school one day and is currently blogging and fundraising for Bliss, a charity that helps families with prematurely-born children, after his son Freddie was born two months early. More
  • Green is good
    Through its Green Schools Revolution (GSR) community education programme, The Co-operative is encouraging students to work towards a more sustainable future. A range of resources, activities and trips have been devised to engage everyone from young, first-time environmentalists to committed ‘greenagers’. More
  • Adding value
    Data is critical to informing decisions on whole school improvement but many schools and academies are failing to make good use of the powerful tools available in their management information systems (MIS). More
  • LA story: The final cut?
    Do local authorities still have a role to play in education? If so, in what areas? Should they be involved in monitoring and raising standards, take on a more limited role, or have no involvement at all with education? Leaders share their views… More
  • Leaders' surgery
    Terminal exams set to stay in England & Pensions come home to roost More
  • Taking care of business
    While pensions and industrial action were at the forefront of everyone’s mind during the last Council meeting on 13-14 October, there was plenty of other business to attend to. Here is a snapshot of the committee discussions More
  • Trading places
    If the school system becomes polarised between confident high-achieving institutions and ones struggling to overcome major challenges, collaboration will become not just important but essential, says Brian Lightman. Otherwise, the dream of a world-class education system has no hope of becoming a reality. More
  • Sense & sensibility?
    Eric Hester reports a startling DfE development: some leadership teams are being encouraged to deploy discernment, logic and good old-fashioned gumption. More
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Take note

Governance, finance, buildings, liabilities, personnel… increased autonomy lays bare a raft of rights and responsibilities that academies can’t ignore, says Richard Bird.

The issues that new academies are confronting also affect community schools but, because local authorities (LAs) deal with them, the issues are less obvious. In that sense, academies unveil the mysteries for all schools.

Reality really becomes visible, for example, as academies plan how to spend the apparent largesse of the local authority central spend equivalent grant (LACSEG) – unless the central management of an academy chain decides how for you.

Everyone knows buildings come first. There is no gain in smarter whiteboards if the school has to shut because of a broken, obsolete boiler. In the tightening financial future those costs will be a greater pressure. Then, unless the LA’s survey is up to date, accurate and available, there is a crucial need for an asbestos survey. All this reveals the need for property management.

This may be done by a local surveyor or the LA may agree to continue to look out for problems. It may make sense to outsource to a large company or, separately, to ask for tenders for development, architect’s work or maintenance and repair. It is too late when something goes wrong.

Health and safety audit

A close second is the need for protection against legal action for negligence. A school that has no source of health and safety advice and practice is asking for trouble, and as law and advice change a health and safety audit cannot be a one-off event.

In law as in life: “If it can go wrong, it will.” HR advice is needed if there is a redundancy situation or a change in terms and conditions, or a member of staff has a long-term sickness or threatens to go to tribunal on the grounds of bullying or harassment.

An academy, of course, takes on all the legal liabilities of the previous employer, maintaining authority or owner of the property. While some of those liabilities can be anticipated, some cannot. For example, a past pupil may claim damages from the school for a past failure to prevent bullying.

All of these require reliable legal and/or personnel advice. Just as with buildings, it is too late to go seeking advice when the letter about legal action arrives. Advice can be purchased from the LA if it is going to continue to provide those services; if it is not, or if it is unwilling to do so, the school will need to source.

Education law and personnel issues are complex and it is advisable to check that the little local solicitor or the large all-purpose human resources consultant really understand education situations. Some do, some don’t.

Law and personnel issues change whether they are about retirement ages or agency staff. An academy does not have to use the same source for case management advice and updating but there must be a source of current information.

Financial management is more than arranging a bank account or transferring the larger amount of money into an existing one. You need an auditor who will identify strategic issues as well as counting the biros a good auditor will also advise on good practice to avoid fraud and help detect it.

Executive powers

And then there is governance. The funding agreement may have established a model but there will be a lot to do to make the burden of the work manageable for governors; to determine how any committees will operate and whether they will exercise executive powers collectively or individually. If conflict arises, legal decisions may turn on these arrangements.

This, in turn, raises the question of clerking; skilled and authoritative clerking will be needed for governors’ meetings and appeals. Again, the LA may be able to help but that cannot be assumed. Clerks need training and keeping up to date. Since independent panels require independent clerks, it may be necessary to arrange a system of loaning clerks between several academies.

Schools have lots of policies. Some are purely declaratory but some can land you in court. It is very well for governors to review these annually but who checks that the governors are properly informed as to what, if anything, they should change?

As if all this were not enough, there are arrangements to be made to fulfil the legal duties of consultation with the workforce on major changes and health and safety responsibilities.

Autonomy and independence are privileges and give freedom to do the things that professional judgement and intimate local knowledge consider right. However, there is no gain without pain, and taking adequate pains to set up the systems that will support autonomy is an essential part of making it effective.

  • Richard Bird is ASCL’s legal consultant
Take note