The Huffington Post UK has seen emails from a Department for Education official, in which he appeared to be putting pressure on a primary school in England to convert to academy status before the end of the last summer term.
The emails were sent at the end of June from the official’s personal Hotmail account, in clear violation of Department for Education rules on email correspondence.
In a memo from the headteacher of the school to governors, the head said they believed the school was being ‘pressurised into making a decision’ about converting to an academy.
One email - sent to the school from an official at the Department for Education from his personal Hotmail - reads:
Unfortunately our priorities have been changed and if the governors do not decide before the end of term the school will be unable to follow a sponsored academy route.
This headteacher of the school described this email as ‘terse’ in the memo to governors, and warned governors the implication was that failure to convert to an academy by the end of July would result in a loss of government sponsorship totalling approximately £100,000.
The official clarified his comments in a follow-up email :
The priorities have changed because of recent announcement re Primary schools
which means that schools in your position will not be able to proceed as a pure sponsored academy through OSC route with the additional transitional funding that is normally available. I have argued to keep you on the list until end of term.
Both of the official's emails were sent from his Blackberry, and using Hotmail to email the school is a clear breach of the rules issued to officials in the Department for Education, which state:
Never use non-DFE e-mail services (such as your own personal internet e-mail account on Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo Mail, AOL, MobileMe, etc.) to carry out departmental business.
In sending emails from a personal account, officials could be seen to be keeping communications off the radar from any potential leak from the department, or subsequent Freedom of Information request. The emails seen by HuffPost UK will raise questions as to whether other officials in Michael Gove’s department have been attempting to corral other schools into converting, in such a way as to be untraceable - or indeed unleakable.
These revelations follow the publication of leaked emails from the Department for Education earlier this week, which showed that civil servants were being urged to spend cash earmarked for the New Schools Network as quickly as possible. One Whitehall commentator believes those emails had been leaked months ago. It will prompt speculation as to why at least one government official has been using their Hotmail since then to conduct government business on an external email system.
Education secretary Michael Gove announced in June the government would prioritise the passage from state school to academy for the 200 worst performing primaries in England.
The first step to becoming an academy is to register interest. This means the Department for Education has to provide the school with a contact who then has a duty to give impartial information to the school’s governing body so they can make an informed decision.
Converting from a primary school to an academy involves added complications. There are often issues of staff skills and funding as they are usually far smaller than secondary institutions.
Although converting to academy status without sponsorship is possible, the school will have to carefully consider whether they have the ability to independently procure services no longer provided by the local authority. The school is also legally bound to remain an academy for a minimum of seven years.
Becoming an academy can be a lengthy process. Under DfE guidelines, “All schools are required to carry out a consultation” before they convert. There have already been several reports of angered community members and parents who have not been consulted. The emails seen by Huffington Post UK suggest other schools may have been put under similar pressure to convert.
The school in question appears to have been caught up in a shifting of priorities within the Department of Education, following Mr. Gove’s announcement in June.