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Are aided schools coming back into fashion?

08 June 2018

Howard Dellar deciphers recent education announcements

Government guidance on funding voluntary aided schools

Government guidance on funding voluntary aided schools

THE Education Secretary, Damian Hinds, made a significant statement on 11 May when he announced funding, for the first time in recent years, for new voluntary aided schools in the state school system. This could represent an opportunity to increase the number of church schools across England, and certainly shows that church voluntary schools have a longer-term future than had recently been supposed.

The announcement does not, however, in any way change the law. Academies and free schools remain the main route for the establishment of new schools, whether as the result of competitions or of a successful application to the Education Secretary under successive waves of the free-schools programme.

In particular, the announcement does not suggest any change to the legislation that requires that “if a Local Authority thinks a new school needs to be established in their area, they must seek proposals for the establishment of an Academy.”

In the light of this requirement, it has always been difficult to work out what the scope might be for “any persons” to publish proposals for a new aided school without having to gain the consent of the Education Secretary.

Similarly, it was hard to see how the power of local authorities to invite proposals for the establishment of new schools other than academies fitted in.

THE current view of the Department for Education can be found in its statutory guidance Opening and Closing Maintained Schools. This has nothing much to say about the interaction of the various bits of law, but does state that a suitable free-school bid will always trump any other proposal. Recent relevant case law appears to say something different, however, reaching two findings that help to clarify the interaction between the various powers.

First, that “needs to be established” is a kind of technical term meaning something like a formal decision on the part of a local authority that there is a current quantifiable requirement for further school places (Basic Need).

Second, that proposals for a new aided school are not automatically trumped by a free-school one.

It is presumed, therefore, that this is the context within which the Government considers that there might be room for the establishment of some new aided schools.

The key change in this announcement is that the Government is saying that there will be some aided-school capital grant available from the Education Secretary for new aided-school projects. Proposers such as diocesan boards of education will, it seems, have to find their statutory ten per cent of the funding; and, in some cases, may have themselves to provide the necessary site (with or without the assistance of a grant).

The promised capital-grant funding makes these projects not only possible, but — in, no doubt, limited numbers — certain. They will, after all, represent a financial bonus for a participating local authority, since the funding will, it seems, come from the Education Secretary and the private proposer.

We presume that funds which might have been made available by the Education Secretary as a free-school grant will simply be rerouted as an aided-school capital grant. We do not think that this is new money.

There is also a possible implication in the Education Secretary’s announcement that, in such circumstances, he would not insist that he could override a local authority by imposing a free school, when the local authority would prefer an aided proposal.

IT SEEMS, therefore, that this announcement represents a further indication that the mixed economy of maintained schools and academies is by no means at an end. It reopens a capital route for aided-school projects that has been closed in practice in recent years, and represents a significant U-turn in government policy.

It reaffirms the partnership between the state, churches, and faith groups, and gives it growth-potential once again.

Finally, it reminds the Church of England dioceses that they should, as a matter of policy, aim at least part of their “Uniform Statutory Trust” resources at the creation of new aided schools, and the provision of suitable sites to be held on trust for them.

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