TweetThe number of academies in the UK is increasing by the month and their set-up can often be complex, with multiple parties involved in the running of the school, but the Freedom of Information Act provides a useful tool to investigate them.
When planning on investigating an academy, and planning to send a Freedom of Information (FOI) request it is important to know how an academy is structured, organised and runs.
Prior knowledge of its set-up will help you to be able to specifically ask for the information you require as well as increasing your chances of getting the information.
What is an Academy?
Academies can be complex bodies to investigate, partially because many a have a sponsor.
These can be businesses, universities, charities, and faith bodies, who are all held accountable for improving the performance of the school. But this should not put you off.
Academies are often interesting to explore as they are free from the control of the local authority, able to set their own pay and conditions for staff, have freedoms around the delivery of the curriculum and have the ability to change the length of school days and terms.
Academies are controlled, and funded, by the Department for Education. When a new academy is created it must be approved by the department.
There are several ways a school can become an academy, these are:
- a state school converting
- foundation or voluntary schools (local authority funded) converting,
- or by local individuals or organisations starting new schools under the Free Schools programme.
They are automatically registered as charities, but they are not listed by the Charity Commission as they are controlled by the Department for Education.
Academies are also classed as a limited company with charitable objectives for advancing education.
Governance of an academy – who’s responsible for what?
Each academy is governed by an Academy Trust, which is a charitable company limited by guarantee.
The trust has two different layers of governance.
Firstly there are members, who operate at a strategic level with ultimate control over the direction of the Academy Trust
And there are governors (often referred to as directors or trustees), responsible for the day-to-day management and running of the Academy Trust.
More information on the governance of academies can be found here.
The structure of academies
Schools commonly convert to academies under any of three different structures:
- The most popular, a Single Academy Trust, is where the Trust created runs the school under its own terms.
- An Umbrella Trust works with other schools, often sharing governance and collaborating on issues that influence them, but they remain governed by their own Academy Trust.
- A Multi-Academy Trust is where one Academy Trust governs a group of schools who are represented by governors sitting on the Trust.
More on academy structure can be found here.
How does FOI apply to academies?
As with all schools, academies are subject to the FOI Act and it can provide a useful tool for investigating them.
The FOI Act came into force immediately for schools that converted to academies after September 2010 and was applied to all academies which had converted before this date at the beginning of 2011.
The Academy Trust is responsible for fulfilling the academies’ requirements under the Act, making sure an academy answers FOI responses and updates its publication scheme.
If an academy trust is in control of more than one academy they are responsible for all their FOI obligations.
It’s up to a trust to delegate the day-to-day responsibility of FOI to members of staff.
If they have received a request that relates to more than one academy it is the role of the trust to consider how this should be dealt with.
Under the Act an academy has to respond to a written request for information with 20 working days, unless it is subject to a exemption.
Many exemptions are intended to protect sensitive or confidential information. This can apply more to academies than other public authorities due to some academies being sponsored by businesses.
In particular, the commercial interests exemption may be applied if the information would be like to prejudice the commercial interests of any person or body, this includes the academy as a whole.
Resources on FOI and academies
- The Government’s guidance to academies on responding to Freedom of Information requests can be found here.
- The Department for Education keeps a record of all academies here, and updates the list once a month. As of January 1st 2013 there are 2,619 academies.