Academy | Education law

Making significant changes to an academy

What is a significant change?

A significant change is broadly defined as any change that will 'in general, [have] an impact on the number, type and/or location of school places' at an open academy. These will invariably be changes that affect clauses in the academy's funding agreement. The Department for Education (DfE)'s guidance on significant changes is intended to avoid disadvantaging pupils in an academy's local area.

This briefing note covers:

  • the process
  • full business cases
  • fast track applications
  • examples of significant changes
  • governance changes

The DfE's guidance is broad, and the department has been known to place the responsibility of deciding which type of approval application is most appropriate firmly on the proposing academy.

This briefing note applies to academies; there are separate rules for making changes to a maintained school.

The process

Once an academy has formed the plans for a significant change, the initial steps that it will need to undertake are as follows:

  1. Carry out a 'fair and open local consultation' over four to six weeks, taking account of all responses received. This includes consulting parents in the local area, any affected schools and the local authority.
  2. Secure funding for the change and obtain any relevant planning or other consents.
  3. Confirm that there will be no negative impact on local educational standards; and
  4. Submit the proposal using the DfE's enquiry form at least three months before the proposed change. This will either be through the fast track route or with a full business case, discussed in greater detail below.

The DfE will generally only provide funding for expansion of high-performing academies, through the Condition Improvement Fund. For most other changes, academies will need to establish alternative means of funding.

Full business cases

Many changes require a full business case to be submitted to the DfE for approval, including any change that will set a precedent or is considered 'contentious'. Changes of this kind may:

  • reduce places in an area of basic need.
  • have received objections from the LA and/or neighbouring schools that the proposed change will undermine the quality of education provided by other ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ schools in the area, by creating additional places where there is already surplus capacity.

An academy making a full business case will need to be able to provide various kinds of evidence if requested by the DfE, including risk assessments, evidence of its educational track record and financial health, and information on the effect of the change on the local area.

Fast track applications

If an academy has been rated good or outstanding, it may be able to have certain significant changes, which do not require a full business case, fast-tracked. According to the DfE, most changes proposed through this route will be approved.

Proposed changes where funding is not yet secured will require a full business case.

Examples of significant changes

What constitutes a significant change will often be a question of fact, and academies may propose changes that have not been considered by the DfE in its guidance. The following are selected examples of changes and their approval processes.

Significant expansion

An expansion to provide space for 30 or more extra pupils will require approval. Whether or not a fast track application can be made depends on the school's most recent Ofsted rating and the size of the expansion. Expansion to create fewer than 30 extra pupil places is not a significant change, but permission to amend the academy's funding agreement will need to be sought.

Expansion on to a new site will not be allowed if the DfE feels that this will effectively create a new school. Any new site expansion requires a full business case.

Age range changes

Except in limited circumstances such as a shortage of local school places, only academies rated good or outstanding will be considered for extensions of their age ranges. These academies can use the fast track to apply for age range changes of up to two years, including adding nursery provision. Other proposed age range changes will require a full business case.

Adding sixth-form provision requires a full business case and compliance with the School Admissions Code. This type of change will usually only be available to good or outstanding academies.

Amalgamations and mergers

All proposed amalgamations or mergers between academies require a full business case.

Faith-related changes

An academy must submit a full business case to gain, remove or change a faith designation. An academy can apply for a religious designation; it must also have first obtained consent from the Secretary of State.

Changes to admissions arrangements

A change requiring amendment of the academy's admissions arrangements requires a full consultation in accordance with the School Admissions Code. Changes reducing PAN can generally only be implemented from the September following approval.

Other changes

A full business case is required for changes in the following areas:

  • SEN provision
  • change in sex composition
  • transfer to another site

Governance changes

'Governance changes' are not subject to the significant change regime and are subject to their own processes. These are:

  • a single-academy trust (SAT), or several SATs, setting up a multi-academy trust (MAT)
  • A SAT joining an existing MAT
  • SATs or MATs adding a free school to their trusts

There is a separate application process for changes of this kind.

Further information

The DfE guidance, published in March 2016 (although due for review in 2017), can be accessed here.

For further information and advice, please contact a member of our Education team.