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The education sector is providing plenty of work for lawyers, especially in relation to academy conversions.
Since the implementation of the Academies Act 2010 by the coalition government the education sector has been a hub of activity, largely driven by the academies programme.
Over the last few years over 3,500 schools have converted to academy status, with numbers set to continue to rise in the coming year. There are in excess of 24,000 schools across the country and, in addition to the academies programme, local government cuts have meant that many local authorities are less able to support their local schools.
Many schools have, therefore, been forced to look elsewhere for services typically provided by their local authority - such as Human Resources and employment, finance, procurement, catering, cleaning and legal advice. This has given a number of organisations (including law firms) the opportunity to explore the market, driving competition and most importantly giving schools choice.
So what do these changes in education policy and funding mean for the future of local authorities, law firms and other service providers?
The academies programme
Academies are independent schools run by an academy trust (a charitable company limited by guarantee). They are funded directly from central government and are outside local authority control. Accompanying this new autonomy are extra responsibilities and freedoms. Academies are able to set their own teachers’ pay and conditions, their own term dates, length of the school day and enjoy certain curriculum freedoms.
Academy conversion in itself is a legal process and schools planning to convert will require legal advice. An academy trust needs to be incorporated (at Companies House) and the governance structure agreed. Staff, assets and contracts need to transfer over to the new academy trust, land transfers/leases need to be completed and other issues surrounding construction may also need to be resolved. A funding agreement has to be drafted and entered into between the academy trust and the Secretary of State.
Practicing education law
Consequently, the boom in academies has seen a surge in law firms taking instructions from schools wishing to convert, but it is supporting schools post-conversion that is by far and away the most exciting and varied work.
Lawyers may be asked to advise on admissions, exclusions, school policies, safeguarding, Human Resources and employment, Special Educational Needs and disability, freedom of information, data protection, complaint handling and governance. Academies are not the only type of school which education lawyers advise, the range and sectors vary from nursery provision to FE and independent schools to faith schools.
The education sector reacts dramatically to changes in government and policy. In the last 15 years alone we have observed the end of ‘grant maintained’ schools, replaced by successors including ‘community’, ‘voluntary’ and ‘foundation’ schools. Many of these schools are now becoming academies and academy variants including ‘free’ and ‘studio’ schools, all changing the landscape further.
It is inevitable that the 2015 General Election winner will make further modifications to the system, creating a variety of opportunities for legal service providers.
Laura Richards and Hayley Roberts are solicitors, and Christian Lowden is a trainee, at Browne Jacobson.