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Councils forced to update key records after legal breach

A dozen councils have been forced to update records from key meetings with headteachers after a Schools Week audit found they were breaking their legal duty to keep them up-to-date.

The law requires local authorities to have a schools forum, made up of leaders, governors and trade unions, which is consulted on key funding decisions.

Councils are also required to “promptly publish all papers considered by the forum and the minutes of their meetings on their website.”

But Schools Week found 12 councils whose records were either non-existent or not up-to-date. This equates to around eight per cent of all councils with education responsibilities.

During our audit, we found Middlesbrough Council had not published documents since October 2022, while Hartlepool’s latest records were from December 2022.

A Middlesbrough Council spokesman said the minutes from all schools management forum meetings “have been agreed by its members, but had not been published on the council’s website. They are now up to date.”

Hartlepool thanked Schools Week “for alerting us to the error” and said all papers should be published “shortly.”

The statement went on: “It appears from our investigation that during a transition between staff, the importance of the agendas being uploaded onto the website may have been missed.

“The situation has been rectified and measures put in place to ensure it is not repeated.”

Forums make key funding decisions

Sunderland Council has a separate website for education, called ‘Leading Education Together,’ which includes links to schools forum papers going back to last May.

But documents from before that date appeared not to be published during our audit. The council said it was in the process of updating the records, and any missing information was an “administrative oversight”.

Schools forums make decisions such as whether money can be moved from the core schools budget to the high needs block and on central spending on things like admissions and place planning.

Andy Jolley

Their documents offer an insight into councils’ funding situations, all the more critical at a time of financial pressures.

For example, Schools Week last year revealed how cash-strapped Norfolk council had plans to “turn the tap off” for education, health and care plan referrals for vulnerable youngsters. The plans emerged through school forum papers.

And last week we learned that Bracknell Forest Council wanted to take the construction of a new special free school into its own hands to gain more “certainty” that it opens on time.

Education campaigner Andy Jolley said school forum meetings “have become a key source of information during the current financial crisis.”

“Councils have a duty to be open and accountable over their decision making. Public access to what’s said in these meetings is essential as the consequences are considerable.”

Councils blame ‘errors’ for lack of documents

Oxfordshire, Reading and Redcar and Cleveland councils had not updated documents since January 2023, while records since last February were outstanding on Peterborough’s and Plymouth’s websites.

Oxfordshire said it “became aware during a refresh of our website that the schools forum documents weren’t showing. This was addressed as a priority and the most recent documents are now visible online.”

Reading, Plymouth and Redcar and Cleveland blamed “errors” and said they had since been updated.

Liverpool Council also had not updated records since last January. A spokesperson said: “We will ensure that the agendas and minutes are published on our website as soon as possible.”

Solihull’s documents only went up to May last year.

A spokesperson acknowledged minutes had “not been published as they should be. Work is now underway to remedy this issue and they will be available shortly.”

DfE carries out ‘regular compliance checks’

Sefton Council previously required anyone wanting to view minutes to request them via an online form. But the law is clear they must be published online.

“This has now been rectified and a plan put in place to ensure these minutes are regularly uploaded.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Education said it carried out “regular compliance checks to ensure local authorities are adhering to schools’ forums regulations and good practice, including publishing schools’ forums papers and meeting minutes.”

“In the instance where regulations are not being met, we work alongside local authorities to support them in meeting their schools’ forums statutory responsibility.”

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