Academy conversions, tuition fees, cyberbullying, foreign students, extremism... all controversial subjects which keep lawyers working with the education sector on their toes.
In April 2011 mainstream academies and free schools – these being publicly funded and sometimes privately sponsored schools that operate independently from the Local Education Authority – represented just 2.3% of all mainstream state-funded schools. By November 2014 this figure had risen to 21.6%. The academies programme has been especially popular with secondary schools, but primaries are just beginning to step on board. In May 2016, controversial plans to force all state schools in England to convert to academies were announced by the government. Just days later, however, they were abruptly dropped. While they'll no longer be forced to convert, many schools are still in the process of deciding whether or not to become an academy – and VWV lawyers have been advising them on how to do so.
Disputes with schools
A shortage of places initially led to more primary school appeals by parents challenging the decision not to award their child a place at their preferred primary school. The number rose for the fifth consecutive year in 2012 to 46,905 appeals, though by 2015 this had shrunk to 32,160 – perhaps as a result of academies' growing establishment within the education sector.
The 2015-17 coalition government introduced a selection of new legal requirements surrounding child protection, pupil behaviour management and exclusions. Lawyers have been busy advising schools on their new powers of search and confiscation, the latest amendments to effect safeguarding responsibilities, and the new role of the Independent Review Panel when it comes to pupil exclusions and parental challenges.
According to VWV, the past few years have witnessed an increase in the volume of tuition fee disputes with parents: apparently many are unwilling to cough up on time. Additionally, parents are increasingly seeking to pay fees by instalments. This requires schools to observe the strict legal requirements of the Consumer Credit Act. The firm predicts an increase in insolvencies among independent schools as banks take a harder line on credit.
Boarding schools and universities continue to push their brands internationally, with many British educational institutions keen to explore where global opportunities might exist. At the moment these institutions want to know what funding options are available for them, what incentives are offered from overseas governments, and what the government is doing to promote the export of British education. Lawyers have to advise educational institutions on developing an expansion strategy, and help them to assess the legislative and tax considerations tied to an overseas establishment.
In September 2017 the upper limit to annual tuition fees for higher education institutions was increased from £9,000 to £9,250. There are indications that fees could jump to £10,000 in the next few years. Consequently, universities have and will continue to be concerned about the knock-on effects of rising fees and the increased propensity for students to start litigation against them. “This has raised awareness of the need to develop watertight contracts and policies,” an insider at VWV told us, especially given that student complaints are at a record high. Subsequently, the role of Student Charters – which detail what the university's commitment to student experience is – have become ever more important as students become increasingly aware of their status as consumers of education. The opposition Labour Party has proposed the complete abolition university tuition fees, so if it were to come to power another overhaul of university financing could be on the cards.
With more and more young people using social networking sites, incidents of cyberbullying have increased and become a pervasive issue in the education sector. It can be quite a challenge for schools to keep up with the way in which students access and utilise the technology available to them, but it's even more of a challenge to come up with necessary procedures and rules to deal with bullying facilitated by social media. The Department for Education now wants schools to implement policies that will enable them to do the following three things: clearly state what the responsible use of IT equipment and networks involves; confiscate and retain devices; and monitor and restrict the use of IT resources. VWV has been advising schools on how to draw up and implement cyberbullying policies.
Universities are worried about the effect of the immigration cap on their income from overseas students. Immigration has become an especially hot potato in the education sector since London Metropolitan University had its licence to accept non-EU students revoked by the UK Border Agency in 2012. More recently Birmingham's Newman University lost its licence in April 2017 due to Home Office rules which revoke licences if 10% of international students recruited are refused visas. London Met has since won this licence back, but there is an ongoing debate as to what responsibilities a university should have when it comes to sponsoring overseas students. Why should a university be culpable for policing the UK's borders when its primary purpose is simply to educate? Britain's 2016 decision to leave the EU will further complicate the issue of foreign student numbers.
Whatever stance is taken, it is clear that universities will have to – for the time being at least – take extra care when admitting overseas students onto their courses. This means universities must check that students have the right visas to study in the UK and regularly monitor the attendance of international students. Given the pressure on universities to be compliant, twinned with the fact that many depend on the higher tuition received from international students, universities will probably be more inclined to reach out to law firms for advice on their sponsorship duties and compliance visits from the Home Office.
Combating extremism in schools is the most controversial issue currently affecting the education sector. Since 1 July 2015 teachers in primary and secondary schools face a duty to flag pupil behaviour which may be a sign of radicalisation or non-violent extremism. The measures are part of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act's 'Prevent' programme designed in the context of young children being radicalised by Islamic extremist propaganda and travelling to Syria. While enhanced pastoral care is the aim of the new regulations, they have been criticised by a union boss for turning teachers into 'spies in the classroom' and led to bizarre incidences including one in which a student was referred to the police for behaviours which included asking to use a prayer room during a school trip.
Plans to bring in a full-scale English Baccalaureate to entirely replace GCSEs (introduced in 1988) were dropped in 2013 after fierce opposition from the teaching profession. Something called the 'EBacc' has now been introduced, but it currently serves only as an indicator of school performance based on how many pupils get a C or above in the core academic subjects at GCSE. However, the government announced in June 2015 its intention for pupils to take a minimum of seven EBacc subjects as part of the 2020 GCSE exam cycle. The announcement was met with criticism due to the restrictive nature of the choices and the lack of emphasis on creative subjects like art and music.