VA schools are maintained by the local authority but are supported by a charitable foundation, usually of a religious nature. The governing body of a VA school employs all staff and acts as the school’s admission authority.
Land and buildings are normally owned by the foundation, although playing fields are often owned by the local authority.
The foundation appoints the majority of governors and is likely to have contributed financially to the costs of establishing the school and any capital projects.
Specific issues for VA schools considering conversion
In 2011, the Department for Education (DfE) published legal documents approved by the National Society and Catholic Education Service. These documents provided the assurances they had sought that the religious ethos and assets of VA schools would be protected.
There are some specific issues that VA schools’ governing bodies need to take into account when considering conversion to academy status.
Consultation: the Academies Act 2010 requires a VA school to obtain the consent of its foundation before it can apply to the DfE to become an academy.
Governance: a maintained school has one level of governance, its governing body. An academy has two levels, the members of the academy trust and the governors of the academy trust, the body which actually runs the academy.
The foundation of a VA school is likely to have a role at both levels. The extent of the foundation’s involvement in the academy trust is likely to match the level of involvement it had when the school was local authority maintained.
The precise details in each case will need to be discussed between the foundation and the school, but, in general, it is expected that the foundation will appoint a majority of the members and a majority of the governors of the academy trust.
Retaining a religious ethos at the academy: the DfE, the National Society and the Catholic Education Service have tailored the academy trust governing document and funding agreement to protect the religious ethos of a VA school.
Provisions in the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 that affect voluntary schools in relation to reserved teachers, the religious beliefs of staff, the teaching of religious education and the requirement to provide collective acts of worship have also been carried over in the funding agreement.
Land: the freehold of land held by the foundation is not expected to transfer to the academy trust on the school’s conversion. Instead, as with community schools, the foundation and academy trust will enter a 125-year lease and foundation will retain the freehold ownership.
Summary: governing bodies of VA schools considering conversion should open a dialogue with their foundations as early in the process as possible to gain the necessary consent and to identify and address potential problems prior to application.
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