Unions launch legal action against DfE over diocese conversions

Unions claim DfE rules have been 'abused or ignored' to help the Diocese of Hallam academise all its school

Unions claim DfE rules have been 'abused or ignored' to help the Diocese of Hallam academise all its school

8 Feb 2022, 17:12

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Four unions have launched legal action against the government for approving a diocese’s plans to academise schools before governors voted on them.

They claim conversion rules were “ignored or abused” when the Department for Education recently issued academy orders to voluntary-aided Catholic schools in the Diocese of Hallam, as reported by Schools Week.

The NAHT, ASCL, NEU and Unison wrote to the DfE today demanding it confirm such orders are “void”, despite the diocese suggesting governor resolutions could come second.

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

It also risks embarrassing the government as the Diocese of Hallam said last month it was about to join a DfE pilot on accelerating Christian school conversions.

DfE application guidance states any governing body must meet and pass a resolution “before your school can apply to become an academy”. It also states applicants must provide “evidence the school has permission to convert”, including proof of both governors’ and diocese consent.

Hallam diocese’s plans to consolidate its 19 voluntary-aided schools and 28 single-academy and multi-academy trust schools in two large trusts were approved at a regional schools commissioner meeting in December.

Academy order letters were then issued and sent to councils, stating VA governors had approved the plans.

But the news came as a shock to some governors and heads, with school leaders’ union NAHT reporting members felt “duped and misled”.

Philip Patterson, director of primary at the diocese, has previously acknowledged resolutions were necessary but “yet to be made”. The diocese had worked closely with the DfE on its MAT plans and the government “understands” its approach, he added.

A government spokesperson at the time also said it was “working with the diocese…in accordance with all legal requirements”.

But regional schools commissioners Carol Gray and Kate Copley then had to write to school leaders in Hallam to “confirm that the documents are not a direction or order to convert”.

It said the diocese had “provided us with the assurance” that its schools had agreed to the academy applications, and the diocese had been informed in advance that documents “would contain standard wording”.

The Diocese of Hallam has been approached for comment. Patterson previously acknowledged documents contained “standard wording”, but did not respond last month when asked if schools knew this or approved the applications in advance.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT, said academisation could be positive but only governors and leaders could “truly understand” pros and cons.

“When the legislation and processes that exist to ensure reasonable treatment are ignored or abused, unions have no choice but to challenge those actions through the courts.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of school leaders’ union ASCL, said the need for governing body consent appeared to have been “flagrantly ignored.”

“Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi must intervene and put a stop to this sorry episode.”

Meanwhile NEU joint general secretary Kevin Courtney said such decisions were “too important to be imposed on schools by the diocese”, and Unison’s education chief Mike Short called the conversion push a “distraction” during Covid.

Patterson also said last month Hallam was “delighted to be receiving support” as part of the government’s diocese conversion pilot, but described “awaiting the final offer letters”.

The DfE has been asked if its participation has been confirmed.

A government spokesperson said: “We are committed to moving towards a school system where all schools can benefit from being part of a family of schools in a strong multi-academy trust, because they help provide outstanding learning experiences for both children and staff.

“We are working with the Diocese of Hallam as they establish an academy trust in consultation with their schools, and in accordance with all legal requirements and our Memorandum of Understanding with the Catholic Church.”

The government will “respond in due course” to the unions’ letter.

Catholic trust and diocese leaders told Schools Week last week that academisation 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.

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