Catholic schools rocked by falling pupil rolls are being urged to academise by their diocese to shield them from local authority closure orders, leaked documents show.
The revelations have prompted renewed pleas for councils or regulators to be handed the power to oversee decisions on the shutting of all schools as the system grapples with how to deal with empty classrooms.
Documents, seen by Schools Week, reveal a “key reason” behind the Diocese of Westminster’s choice to start moving schools into multi-academy trusts (MAT) in 2017 was to ensure “closure or amalgamation [decisions] would be solely” in its hands.
Since then, London boroughs have slashed admission totals and shut schools as forecasts suggest the number of four-year-olds in some parts of the capital will drop up to 15 per cent by 2027.
‘Growing urgency’ to convert
Diocese minutes from a meeting last month state “there is a growing urgency” for its schools “to initiate the process of transferring into the academy sector”.
“A communication has been issued this week to the chair[s] of governors and headteachers at all the schools which are not currently engaged with the request … to undertake the due diligence and processes to transfer … from the VA [voluntary aided] sector into the academy sector,” diocesan officers told the gathering.
“Should a school be at risk, the LA can recommend the closure of a maintained VA school without diocesan consent, thus limiting our capacity to have strategic oversight of our provision for Catholic education across the diocese.”
The birth-rate slump is expected to cause primary pupil numbers in England to tumble by 760,747 (16.6 per cent) between 2022 and 2032. The number of babies delivered in London has already dropped 17 per cent between 2012 and 2021, equivalent to 23,225 fewer children. Almost 15 per cent of school places in the city are now unfilled.
A letter to headteachers from the diocese in January revealed it now wants its 204 schools – many of which are in London – to have either converted or be “engaged in the process” before the end of 2024–25. But one headteacher within the diocese accused the body of “scaremongering schools” into trusts. Another said it “risks ghettoising Catholic schools”.
Catholic school decisions ‘solely in diocese hands’
Diocesan officers added during the January meeting that joining a MAT “will not by itself resolve all or any” of the issues threatening schools. But it will enable the diocese and the trust to “ensure all opportunities are fully explored” to secure its long-term viability.
“A key reason for the trustees developing their strategy to move diocesan schools from the VA sector into the academy sector was to ensure that the decisions for the provision, be that closure or amalgamation, would be solely within the diocese’s authority.
“Therefore, there is a growing urgency for those schools not yet engaged, in particular any that may be highlighted by their LA as at risk, to initiate the process of transferring into the academy sector.”
While councils can determine reductions in local authority-maintained schools, their powers do not extend to academies.
Jon Andrews, Education Policy Institute’s head of analysis, believes local authorities’ ability to manage pupil number fluctuations is “made more challenging” by the fact they “have no statutory levers to direct academies to adjust admissions” totals.
Maintained schools ‘more vulnerable’
He noted: “Maintained schools may become more vulnerable to reduced admissions with implications for their funding, amalgamation, or even closure.”
Meanwhile, Tom Richmond, a former DfE adviser now working for the EDSK think tank, said the “system is in urgent need of reform” if schools “are considering switching” to avoid closures. “To protect the best interests of pupils and local communities, we cannot continue to allow academies or trusts to make such significant decisions without any external oversight from local authorities or regulators.”
London Councils, an organisation representing the capital’s boroughs, previously urged the government to give authorities “the power to manage an academy’s reduction of PAN [published admission number] or closure, where there is clear evidence of a significant drop in demand”.
A spokesperson for the Diocese of Westminster insisted it continues “to work in partnership with the regional director’s office and local authorities as part of the planning for the local provision of places for pupils”.