THE Government has been criticised for its “lack of thoroughness” after it apparently reconsidered plans for a controversial new academy between 7pm and 10.30am the next morning.
North Tyneside Council was objecting to proposals to merge the privately-run King’s School with state-run Priory Primary School, in Tynemouth.
The authority received an email from the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, at 7pm on Thursday saying the original decision to set up the Kings Priory Academy would be reconsidered.
However, by 10.30am yesterday, a further letter was emailed from Lord Nash, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Schools, saying: “The Secretary of State has decided to enter into funding arrangements with the Woodard Academy Trust having considered the matter afresh.”
At the same time, the authority received a further email from the Department for Education confirming they would be unable to comply with a Freedom of Information request submitted by the council to access the supporting statistical analysis used in reaching the decision.
The basis for refusal was that it would take an estimated three-and-a-half working days to locate, retrieve and extract the information.
A council spokesman said: “We were pleased to receive the email at 7pm on Thursday confirming that the Secretary of State would withdraw the original decision and consider the Kings Priory proposal afresh.
“However, we were absolutely astounded that by 10.30am yesterday they had reconsidered it – without being able to set out their reasons or the information used to reach the new decision.
“It is particularly surprising when at 10.14am we received another email saying it would take three-and-a-half working days to find the information in response to our FOI request when that information would have been used in making the fresh decision.
“In contrast we have shared all our available information with the department, yet we have been provided with none of the information they are relying on to reach a decision on this proposal which could have an impact on schools in North Tyneside for years to come.”
Once the council receives the reasons for reaching the decision, a special meeting of the cabinet will be held to consider whether any further action is appropriate.
The council added: “We fully recognise that this is disruptive and stressful for parents and children affected by this decision and regret that this process is taking place at this time. However, the timescale for our challenge has been out of our hands.
“The council has been seeking to engage fully with the department since September last year when the authority raised its initial concerns. That offer has never been taken up.
“The Minister didn’t issue his decision until mid July – so the council could not have made its formal challenge any earlier.
“We have never understood why this matter needs to be dealt with in such haste. If Kings School and the Woodard Trust had been prepared to set their opening timescale for 2014, this uncertainty would not have occurred as we would all have had more time to sensibly consider this matter.
“And how the Secretary of State has now been able to completely reconsider the decision afresh as they promised, between 7pm on Thursday and 10.30am yesterday – when it took six months for them to make the original decision – is absolutely incomprehensible.
“The response from the Minister on Thursday evening was encouraging as it indicated the decision was withdrawn and would be determined afresh, but the speed which a new decision has been issued at 10.30am the next day raises doubt over how fully the matter has been properly considered afresh. It smacks of pre-determination.”
On July 17, the council agreed to challenge the Government’s decision to allow the Kings Priory Academy to go ahead.
The cabinet instructed lawyers to send a formal legal letter, known as a pre-action protocol letter, to the Secretary of State urging him to reconsider his decision.
A DfE spokesman said: “It was a matter of urgency that this issue was resolved as quickly as possible being so close to opening of the Kings Priory School in September.
“The Secretary of State took the decision to agree to reconsider the matter afresh and a new decision was taken as a quickly as possible to minimise further uncertainty for parents.”
David Bilton, CEO of the Woodard Academies Trust, sponsor of Kings Priory School, said: “We are delighted that, following a request from North Tyneside Council, the Secretary of State has quickly and thoroughly re-examined all information submitted and has yet again approved the funding agreement.
“With just 37 days to go until the new academy opens, we hope this draws a line under any uncertainty and that the parents, students and staff can at last feel confident that they will be part of the Kings Priory School community.
“We hope North Tyneside Council will now comply with the over-riding wishes of the community and support this new school which we confidently believe will become a beacon of excellence the whole community will be proud of.”