Recent Freedom of Information Requests by the National Education Union (NEU) reveal East Sussex County Council (ESCC) to have spent just over £55,000 of public money pursuing an academisation agenda in the face of fierce community opposition.
£8,500 of that money was spent on barrister fees fighting a court case brought by parents who were arguing for a judicial review before Peacehaven Community School (PCS) was permanently transferred to the Swale Academies Trust.
In January 2016, the Department for Education approved an application for an Interim Executive Board (IEB) to be put in place at PCS. The IEB replaced the previous local governing body, comprised of parents, staff and members of the community. Instead, members of the IEB were appointed by ESCC and from the outset Swale Academies Trust had representation on the board.
Soon after the imposition of the IEB, the school began to look for an academy trust to sponsor the school. In February 2017 a consultation began over PCS joining the Swale Academies Trust, that parents now report as being presented as “a done deal” at the time.
Parent, Ash Webster, who was part of the campaign said:
“As parents, all we ever asked for during the campaign was for a proper governing body to be reconstituted and to allow the community to have the final say over the future of the school.
“So much has changed in the 2 and a half years since the original consultation. Many parents didn’t have children at the school at the time and so didn’t have the opportunity to have a say.
“There is also so much more information available about the risks of academisation now that many people simply weren’t aware of at the time.
“I can’t believe that instead of running a fresh consultation and respecting the views of parents, the council instead chose to spend £8,500 on legal fees to silence our voices.”
Following other high-profile anti-academy campaigns in Lewes and the Peacehaven primary schools, staff and parents decided to take up the fight to keep PCS as a community school. In May, hundreds of people marched through Peacehaven in defence of PCS and 2 of the local primary schools remaining within the local authority. NEU members eventually took 10 days of strike action and protests involving staff and parents were held outside County Hall.
Phil Clarke, NEU East Sussex Branch Secretary, said:
“It is a disgrace that East Sussex County Council has chosen to waste such an enormous amount of public money in pursuing an academisation agenda in the face of such fierce community opposition. That’s before you even start to factor in the costs of council officer time and administration costs on top.
“How can East Sussex County Council justify this level of spending to their constituents, when as recently as July, Councillor Keith Glazier was calling on the Government to provide additional funds to ease the financial pressures on the council?”
Despite a hard-fought campaign, involving 10 days of strike action by members of the NEU working at PCS and ESCC being summoned to the Royal Courts of Justice by parent campaigners, the school did eventually convert to the Swale Academies Trust on 1st September 2019.
Now Freedom of Information (FOI) requests made by the NEU reveal that ESCC spent £8,500 on barrister fees fighting the case, which the union says was spent to “deny parents from having a say in the future of the school before being permanently handed over to an academy trust”. They went on to say that if the IEB had simply reconsulted, the bill to the taxpayer would have been within the hundreds rather than the thousands.
Furthermore, a second FOI by the NEU has revealed that the total cost of the legal fees to convert PCS to academy status was £47,618. Money paid for from the public purse, which the union argues would have been better spent investing in teachers and support staff to directly impact upon teaching and learning.
Upon hearing the news, Lloyd Russell-Moyle MP commented:
“I am absolutely disgusted to hear how much tax payer money has been flagrantly wasted by East Sussex County Council in lining the pockets of lawyers, simply to deny parents a meaningful say in the future of our school that the community campaigned for such a long time to receive.
“I have already made my feelings known to Stuart Gallimore (Director of Children’s Services) about the conduct of the council regarding the transfer of Peacehaven Community School to the Swale Academies Trust and I will be speaking to the council again.
“At a time when the council is cutting back on essential services throughout the county and blaming it on governmental funding cuts made by their own party, it is simply unacceptable to be throwing this level of taxpayer money down the drain.”