DfE ‘pauses’ diocese academy drive after legal challenge

Unions have challenged the DfE's decision to approve Catholic Diocese of Hallam conversions before governing bodies had voted

Unions have challenged the DfE's decision to approve Catholic Diocese of Hallam conversions before governing bodies had voted

15 Feb 2022, 17:35

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The Department for Education has “paused” a Catholic diocese’s bid to academise 19 schools, after unions launched legal action because governors had not signed off the plans.

The Diocese of Hallam said it would continue preparing for full academisation by Easter regardless. A government spokesperson called the pause “standard practice” while legal challenges are considered.

It follows legal action by four unions last week, with their leaders claiming conversion rules were “ignored or abused”.

Orders issued before governors voted

The Department for Education had sent academy orders to every voluntary-aided Catholic school in the Diocese of Hallam, which covers South Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, in December.

Such orders are typically only issued after applications by governing bodies themselves, with voluntary conversion dependent on both governor and diocese sign-off.

But voluntary-aided schools in the diocese received the orders when governors had not even voted on conversion, as church leaders applied on their behalf.

Official documents even suggested governors had approved sign-off, forcing regional schools commissioners to clarify they merely used “standard wording” and were not an “order to convert”.

The diocese has previously said the letters enable conversion and governing body votes could come next. It plans to consolidate its 19 voluntary-aided schools and 28 academies in two large trusts.

Unions want academy orders rescinded

But lawyers for the NAHT, ASCL, NEU and Unison wrote to the DfE last week demanding it confirmed such orders were “void”, as governors had not approved the plans.

The row could become a test case for sceptical governors’ and heads’ ability to resist a growing wave of diocese-led conversion drives nationwide.

The Catholic Education Service has also waded into the row, with director Paul Barber rejecting calls to intervene in a Schools Week comment piece.

It also threatens to overshadow the DfE’s pilot projects promoting Christian school academisation, with the Diocese of Hallam reporting last month it was about to join the pilot.

Catholic trust and diocese leaders told Schools Week recently that a MAT drive would help safeguard the future of Catholic education.

Several cited benefits they were already seeing, from better staff development to greater support for financially unsustainable or academically struggling schools.

But some dioceses have been accused of heavy-handed tactics and “ruling by diktat” by unions, heads and even a cheerleader-turned-whistleblower.

Diocese still preparing for Easter conversion

Philip Patterson, Hallam’s director of primary, said the diocese “continues to work closely with its schools and the department to prepare for the academy transfer and conversion of its VA schools before Easter”.

He acknowledged the DfE would not take any “formal steps” until it had provided a full response to unions, but “the diocese understands this will be provided shortly and is confident that progress will continue as planned”.

A DfE spokesperson said it was committed to all schools being in strong multi-academy trusts.

Regional schools commissioners Carol Gray and Kate Copley previously told local school leaders the diocese had “provided us with the assurance” schools had agreed to the academy applications.

They also said the diocese knew in advance documents “would contain standard wording” suggesting governor approval.

Last week Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT, warned unions had “no choice” but to go to court when “legislation and processes that exist to ensure reasonable treatment are ignored or abused”.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of school leaders’ union ASCL, also said the need for governing body consent appeared to have been “flagrantly ignored”, and urged education secretary Nadhim Zahawi to intervene.

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