Controversial academy plan in chaos

Legal hitch: Tapton school cannot convert to Academy status this week as planned.
Legal hitch: Tapton school cannot convert to Academy status this week as planned.

A TOP Sheffield secondary has been forced to postpone its controversial move to academy status - because school bosses do not own the buildings.

Tapton, which was rebuilt using Private Finance Initiative funding 10 years ago, was set to become an academy this Thursday.

But at the 11th hour the switch has stalled, after legal concerns were raised by the school’s owner - a private finance initiative company - and its funders Lloyds Banking Group.

Tapton is one of the first in the country to be affected by an issue which could hit countless secondaries nationwide - as schools rebuilt using PFI money now try to take on academy status.

Headteacher David Bowes told The Star: “It could be this is not just a problem of our PFI contract, but all other PFI contracts. And it may take new government legislation to change that.”

The move for Tapton to become an academy was unpopular with teachers and parents, who said it was being rushed through with insufficient consultation and would undermine teaching across the city.

Today parent Mary Seneviratne, whose son has just finished at Tapton, said: “This seems to be part and parcel of a whole sorry mess. They don’t seem to have thought through the issue at all. The whole thing has been rushed.”

Tapton’s board of governors voted in July to take on academy status, which would give the Crosspool school independence from Sheffield Council. Governors said the change would bring a cash boost of nearly £750,000 a year.

They hoped to achieve academy status before the new school year, to avoid an expected round of funding cuts soon.

But in an email to union leaders Debra Kirkham, Tapton’s business manager, said: “As you are aware, we had intended to convert to academy status no later than September 1.

“As many of you will also be aware, Tapton is part of a PFI scheme which involves private sector partners and funders.

“The funders have concerns about the way in which a PFI scheme and academy status interact with each other.

“Until these concerns are resolved, it is unlikely we will be able to convert to academy status.”

The earliest Tapton could now become an academy would be October 1, as conversion can take place only on the first day of each month.

But Ms Kirkham added: “Although we remain committed to the conversion, we are unable to give a definite date for completion of this process at this time.”

Interserve rebuilt the school in 2001 and took on a 25-year contract to manage the site. Interserve then sold the school contract on to another party, who are owned by Lloyds Banking Group.

But the firm’s contract is with Sheffield Council - not Tapton School - which has given rise to the legal problems as the school tries to break from council control.

Sheffield Council’s director of education, Sonia Sharp, said: “This is very disappointing and I can understand the school being upset.

“We have all been working extraordinarily hard to secure the conversion, but the banks behind the funding for the PFI have been very cautious.

“There’s a legal view that doesn’t allow the council to make PFI payments on behalf of the school once they have become an academy.”

Dr Sharp said top barristers are currently working through the problem and are due to make a pronouncement on the issue by the end of September.

She added: “The new academy legislation was rushed through by the Government and there seems to be a loophole, which will have a wider effect.”

A Lloyds Banking Group spokesman said the company “fully supports the academy programme”, and added: “We have been working pro-actively with the Department for Education to adapt the status of existing PFI contracts, and look forward to working to facilitate the transition.”