Church schools facing forced academy conversion

Catholic and Anglican chiefs say that multi-academy trusts can solve 'existential' threats

Catholic and Anglican chiefs say that multi-academy trusts can solve 'existential' threats

13 Nov 2021, 5:00

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Many Christian schools face mounting pressure to become academies, with several dioceses forcing conversion and saying that the decision lies with bishops.

Some heads are pushing back, accusing dioceses of “ruling by diktat” and undermining autonomy.

But Catholic and Anglican chiefs say that multi-academy trusts can solve “existential” threats, including falling rolls and schools having to join a non-Christian trust

Several dioceses now mandate conversion

This summer, Bernard Longley, Archbishop of Birmingham, told voluntary-aided schools he was “requesting” they start joining Catholic trusts by September next year.

Documents from the Diocese of Lancaster show schools are “expected to convert”, while the Diocese of Hallam said in February it was “committed” to consolidating 19 voluntary-aided schools, 23 single-academy trusts and a five-school MAT into two Catholic trusts.

Documents say foundation governors must “know the mind of the bishop” as he “ultimately makes the decision”.

A Diocese of Westminster letter last year said it was “requiring” schools to join trusts, adding: “Academisation is the diocesan plan to save Catholic education.”

But some schools are rebelling

The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) convened meetings for heads and governors in Birmingham and Hallam this month to fight back. Its pressure prompted Westminster and Brighton and Arundel to reiterate earlier this year that conversion was voluntary.

Westminster’s correspondence acknowledged “distaste” for academisation; Birmingham’s noted “resistance”.

Two Birmingham heads said they felt compelled to resist, claiming the archdiocese had not offered sufficient explanation or discussion.

One said her school would not co-operate “until made to”.

Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the NAHT, said schools faced pressure even after proposing alternative collaboration models. One governor claimed the archdiocese threatened to dismiss all governors after they rejected conversion.

But an Archdiocese of Birmingham spokesperson said “care had been taken to meet and listen to staff and governing bodies”, including revisiting various options.

‘Archbishop as chief whip’

Christian schools remain less likely to convert, despite some diocesan pushes since the mid-2010s.

Matthew Clements-Wheeler, an education consultant, said their often principled and “naturally conservative” governors cherished traditional independence.

One head fears lost identity and autonomy, adding: “A MAT is not rooted in communities, it’s about blanket policies.”

cost-cutting consultants
Matthew Clements-Wheeler

Another said reluctant governors felt torn between Nolan principles of pursuing the public interest with integrity, and trust deeds requiring they follow diocesan orders.

Ministers may welcome having “archbishop as chief whip”, Clements-Wheeler said, but unions argue compulsion contradicted Department for Education policy.

Nadhim Zahawi, the education secretary, ruled out “arbitrary” academisation deadlines last month. A DfE spokesperson said schools and governors “ultimately make the decision”.

‘Every diocese has academy strategy’

Compulsion is not Church of England (CofE) or Catholic Education Service (CES) national policy for its 4,800 schools.

But a CES spokesperson said every diocese had academy strategies, which “demonstrates the direction of travel”.

Nigel Genders, the CofE’s chief education officer, said dioceses should “plan strategically and proactively” in a changing education landscape, with schools “better in groups”.

He said more church MATs were needed as more schools converted or faced intervention. Dioceses might fear schools joining non-church MATs, but going it alone was “not an option” for the church’s many small rural schools.

Lancaster documents highlight teacher development and pooled expertise as benefits. They also say Catholic identity “will be better safeguarded” in MATs, with curriculums “tailored” to Catholic needs.

Paul Thompson, Lincoln diocese’s director of education, said unsupported schools faced “challenges” during Covid, and policy documents say MATs boost senior recruitment.

Westminster said last year schools had “little money and falling rolls”. Threats were “existential” but “solidarity can save us”.

New MATs getting extra cash

At least seven diocesan MATs in a new DfE pilot will receive up to £100,000. A DfE spokesperson said it was “progressing well”, with 20 schools already in pilot trusts.

But Genders said more funding would be needed if the DfE wanted a fully academised system.

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  1. Martin Clephane

    The same is already happening in the Diocese of Hexham of Newcastle. Governing bodies have been dissolved or threatened with being dissolved if they do not comply with the Diocese or Trust. Complaints over many years have been ignored, 1 in 5 schools now have new leadership in terms of Head and Deputy as the exodus from Catholic Education goes on and it hasn’t finished yet. Goodness knows how many Governors have also chosen to leave. Headteachers fearful for their position are now unwilling to speak out as the process continues.

  2. Caroline Maybury

    1. A 2018 report by UCL’s Institute of Education:

    found there was no positive inpact on the attainment and progress scores of pupils in MATs. Pupils in larger Mats significantly underperformed when compared with non-MAT secondary schools.

    2. Governors have a duty of care to their staff. See dangers to staff etc. when Catholic schools become MATs.