Catholic heads seek legal advice over diocese academy plan

Schools band together to consult KC and commission due diligence on trust as bishop unveils plans

Schools band together to consult KC and commission due diligence on trust as bishop unveils plans

30 Jan 2024, 5:00

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A group of Catholic schools have engaged a senior lawyer as they resist their diocese’s plans for academy conversion. 

Headteachers in the Wirral have sought advice from King’s Counsel Fiona Scolding after being told by the Bishop of Shrewsbury they will be moved into the six-school Holy Family Catholic MAT. 

Resistance to diocesan plans are rare as the majority of Catholic school boards are foundation governors, appointed by the bishop to represent their interests. 

Catholic Education Service guidance states it is “important” that governors “know and implement the bishop’s policies on education”. 

But Elaine McGunigall, headteacher at Our Lady and St Edward’s RC Primary, said the group wanted to take control of its destiny.

She said: “We are all minded under Catholic law to have the very best Catholic education for children. That’s our duty. 

“If schools want to go into it, then that’s absolutely fine, but they’re being forced.”

There are 19 dioceses across the country, each overseen by their own bishop. In recent years, many of them have started to pursue strategies to move their schools into trusts. 

Catholic schools ask to form own trust

McGunigall said her diocese informed leaders last year that it wanted to academise the rest of its local authority-maintained schools. A roadmap is currently being drawn up. 

“Every single school in the diocese will be put in an academy trust. It’s not their choice, it’s the diocese choosing which trust to go in. This has caused concern,” McGunigall said. 

“We’ve asked [if] we could start our own trust and all kinds of things and they’ve said ‘no’.”

One of the schools’ concerns over the choice of Holy Family trust is over how its central services are funded. Latest accounts for the trust show it collected an 8.3 per cent slice in the 2022-23, up from 6.8 per cent in the previous year.

McGunigall added that the schools have commissioned academy specialists to carry out due diligence on the trust.   

They have also instructed King’s Counsel Fiona Scolding to get a better understanding of their legal position and ways forward, with “written advice” provided.

“We want to come to a position where we can have an open dialogue where we come to an understanding of what’s right for our schools, not dictated to and forced to,” McGunigall added.

Scolding said she could not comment.

The schools – as many as 14 – have banded together to split the legal and due diligence costs equally.

Responding to the concerns, a Diocese of Shrewsbury spokesperson said the decision for any Catholic school to academise “comes only after full and thorough consultation” with leaders, teachers and parents. It is a “decision taken by the school governing body, of which the bishop appoints a majority”.

They have also commissioned an “independent review of governance” of Holy Family. 

The diocese said “it is good practice to conduct periodic” checks of these arrangements “to ensure that they remain effective and robust”.

Andy Moor, Holy Family’s CEO, also added academy decisions are made “after an extensive and in-depth consultation” with leaders, teachers and parents.

“This is a lengthy process and is a decision made by the school governing body. We are excited about the growth of the trust and look forward to working with all schools as they join us.”

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  1. It is a common misunderstanding to think that Governors, and Directors of Academy Trusts are there to do the bidding of those that appointed them. Once appointed their fiduciary duty is to the school / Academy. Naturally they must consider all stakeholders when making significant decisions but the governing body must act in the best interests of the school not those who appointed them.

  2. After experiencing a similar situation in the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle, it is evident that schools are not granted true autonomy, as pressure is exerted on Governors to align with the Bishop’s preferences. Decisions are reached with governors reluctantly approving the move to join the Multi-Academy Trust (MAT), even when they don’t believe it is in the schools’ best interests. This has led to the resignation of Heads and Governors, and, in some instances, Governors not being reappointed or being removed. The discontent has fractured a diocese that previously functioned cohesively as a family. The newly established trusts faced challenges, with some having a scarcity of schools willing to be part of them. Joining MATs has, in my opinion, diminished the autonomy of headteachers, further weakening leadership. While efforts are being made to mend the damage in the Diocese, for many leaders, it may be too late. It is my hope that the Diocese of Liverpool takes heed of the concerns expressed by their leaders and governors before rushing through the process.