While Michael “Oiky” Gove drives forward his campaign to turn more schools into Academies, and introduce more Free Schools, one small matter has been overlooked, and that is the question of school buildings and other land (playing fields, for instance). Schools are being turned over to private companies to run, but what is happening to the property freehold?
Yes, "Oiky", your department
That is the question that recently taxed Mel Kelly, to the extent of submitting Freedom Of Information (FoI) requests to get information out of the DfE. And all too predictably, the response has resembled the reply of Number Six in The Prisoner: “You won’t get it”. Thus the thought enters that Gove and his department may not be totally willing to let the public know what is going on.
Mel first made an FoI request on 8th of February last year: this was intended to find out, for every Academy, whose name was on the title deeds, whether that title had been transferred from Local Authority control, and if it had, what payment the company running the Academy had made in exchange – if any. This was declined as being too expensive to fulfil (the £600 rule).
Note at this stage that it is a legitimate reason for declining an FoI request. So Mel narrowed down the criteria, and on 3rd March last year submitted an FoI just for those schools that had been transferred to the ARK Academies chain. A reminder had to be sent a month later to prod the DfE. This, too, did not bring forth the required information. Not until mid-June was the matter addressed.
And the response was ... that the DfE did not know what freehold assets ARK held, nor what may have been transferred from Local Authority ownership. Think about that for a moment. Land and buildings worth potentially millions of pounds has been taken from the public sector and given to the private one, and Government is unable to say what it was worth, or even if the private sector paid for it.
The DfE asserts “that the freehold on the land does not in general transfer to academy trusts unless the predecessor school was a foundation school” but this does not address specific cases. “In general” is not good enough. And there is also the case of Free Schools setting up in buildings that have not previously been school premises: what are the comparative costs? After all, we’re paying.
That Gove’s department does not know whether public assets are being transferred to the private sector is bad enough. That they also do not know whether those assets were paid for at the going rate, or even at all, is worse. The impression is given that the DfE is taking an almost cavalier attitude to the management of state assets – and at a time when we are all supposed to “be in this together”.
This kind of behaviour is not good enough. And, sadly, nor is it surprising any more.