Last Friday some parents lost their legal challenge to stop a proposed academy in Camden. The press reports mainly covered it as a blow to plucky campaigners. But this was a story of national significance. One Whitehall academy champion told me this case was the single thing he “worried about most”. Had the ruling gone the other way, it would have devastated both Labour and Conservative plans to reform education.
Why? The parents demanded that academy sponsors should be selected through a European Union procurement process, rather than being chosen by ministers. A competitive tender would take months longer and cost much more, for both the government and the sponsor. The sponsor in Camden was UCL. Had the judge told them to make their bid via Brussels, the university would have almost certainly walked away. Why bother with the cost?
Ministers genuinely thought this would be the death knell for plans to open hundreds of academies. The decision would have been even more damaging for the Tories, who want to open up the system to give state funding to anyone who wants to open a school. Fighting this case was taken very seriously — just look at the senior silk hired to argue the government’s case.
Justice Forbes lifted the threat to the academy programme. But the judgement also puts limits on the programme’s evolution. He found that the sponsors did not need to go through cumbersome procurement process because they were not seeking to make a profit. The flipside to this is the risk that any for-profit sponsor looking to run independent state funded schools will need to go through a competitive tender.
The profit motive in education remains taboo in Westminster, and such reforms have been ruled out by all three parties. But attitudes were changing. There was a small but growing chance that opposition to profit-making could soften in years to come. It may no longer matter. Justice Forbes appears to have saved academies but closed the door to profit.