A flagship Catholic academy trust pilot has been thrown into disarray, after 19 schools’ conversions were halted and others were left without regular funding.
The Department for Education now faces calls to apologise to 19 schools who were issued academy orders without their consent after a legal challenge forced a U-turn this week.
The setbacks to Hallam diocese’s academisation drive come as an embarrassment for ministers, as Schools Week can also reveal it recently joined their high-profile diocese trust pilot.
The DfE sent academy orders to every voluntary-aided Catholic school in the diocese in December.
Hallam plans to consolidate all its schools in South Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, including 28 existing academies, into two large multi-academy trusts.
Such orders typically only follow applications by governing bodies themselves for converter academies, or ‘inadequate’ inspection results for sponsored academies.
But the diocese itself sought and successfully secured orders for the schools. Unions then took legal action on behalf of shocked governors and heads – alleging that the lack of governing body resolutions made them “void”.
On Wednesday the government agreed to withdraw all the orders, saying it would await applications directly from governors.
Kevin Courtney, general secretary of the National Education Union, called it “a victory for common sense, and an important line in the sand.”
Schools Week has learnt that on the same day, some of Hallam’s other schools were surprised not to receive their usual general annual grant funding.
Some academies were told to expect a week’s delay for the cash. This was because the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) had expected them to transfer on March 1 as the diocese wanted – but not all have done so.
One school source accused the ESFA of “jumping the gun” in the same way that the DfE had over academy orders. “No-one should be changing anyone’s funding dates,” they added.
A government spokesperson said it would work with schools to “resolve any resulting issues”.
Rob Kelsall, national secretary at school leaders’ union NAHT, said the conversion U-turn would be a relief for leaders and governors. But he added: “It’s a shame the DfE haven’t seen fit to apologise for what they’ve put these schools through.”
The Catholic diocese is one of several embroiled in disputes with unions over controversial conversion tactics, as increasing numbers embrace multi-academy trusts.
It also recently joined a pilot to boost flagging Christian school academisation, with a £100,000 grant to come.
The reversal of academy orders is rare, with the DfE only allowingit from 2016 in “exceptional circumstances”.
A Schools Week investigation found only 33 had been revoked three years later. More recently one school with credible evidence of improvement had to go to court to block conversion.
A DfE spokesperson said: “We continue to work with the Diocese of Hallam as they establish academy trusts in consultation with their schools and will issue new academy orders in due course once formal applications are made by the relevant schools’ governing bodies.”
RSC decisions have always been “one step” in conversion alongside governor consent, they added.
Philip Patterson, Hallam’s director of education, said: “We will continue to work closely with our schools and the department to deliver the Bishop’s strategic vision.”