It’s not for us to question Catholic school academy conversions 

Calls on the Catholic Education Service to ‘step in’ on controversial academy conversions show a secular misunderstanding of our role, writes Paul Barber

Calls on the Catholic Education Service to ‘step in’ on controversial academy conversions show a secular misunderstanding of our role, writes Paul Barber

7 Feb 2022, 5:00

Since 2010 the educational landscape of this country has undergone a fundamental change, with more than half of all schools now operating within an academy structure. As the country’s second largest provider of schools, it is only natural that this sea change would impact the Catholic school sector. 

As the national body representing Catholic schools and dioceses, the CES has been looked to by many to form policy on whether Catholic schools should or shouldn’t convert to academy status. Likewise, given the political sensitivities around the conversion process, some consider it the CES’s role to ‘step in’ and arbitrate over diocesan academisation plans. 

This is certainly not the case and fundamentally misunderstands and misrepresents the organisation’s purpose. The CES is the education agency of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. Put simply, this means that we represent the bishops’ collective view to the government, the Department for Education and other national and devolved bodies. 

The day-to-day running of Catholic schools sits with their respective diocese (or religious order) under the authority of their diocesan bishop and their team of education experts. Each bishop is responsible for setting parts of the curriculum in his schools as well as inspecting them, but it is also he who decides his diocese’s academisation strategy. 

This structure is nothing new, and while it is not the method of working that most in the secular world expect (that is, the national body taking the lead) it is how the Church has operated for two millennia. 

We will continue to support dioceses whatever their approach 

Furthermore, it is important to remember that the Catholic Church has a global reach. Catholic schools across the world are governed by the same framework and are all subject to the same requirements set out in Canon Law. These universal norms operate within the many different school systems around the globe. The responsibility of organisations like the CES is to ensure that Catholic education can operate effectively within each of these different systems.  

With these structural changes taking place in the English education system, it should not come as a surprise that the CES would work with government to ensure that, if a bishop wishes to take the schools in his diocese in that direction, they can flourish within an academy model. Over the past decade, this is exactly what the CES has done. 

Therefore, when the CES refers to this shift towards academisation as a ‘direction of travel’ it shouldn’t be seen as a ground-breaking statement, merely an accurate reflection of a path many schools are taking and a strategy shared by all dioceses. In 2010, there were three Catholic academies; today, there are over 700. 

Some dioceses have now reached a situation where most, if not all, of their schools are academies. Others are in the earlier stages of the process. The reality is that most dioceses, while their strategy towards academisation reflects the national direction of travel, will in the immediate future run a mixed economy of schools. The CES will continue to support dioceses whatever their approach. Our support and guidance for VA schools remains just as strong as it is for academies.   

Given the national picture, however, it is likely there will be a point in the future where the majority of Catholic schools will be academies. In fact, Catholic dioceses have been leading the way in terms of the strategically constructed, more geographically focused MAT structure now favoured by government.  What’s more, Catholic dioceses have unique governance and inspection structures that mean they lead the way in developing robust internal MAT accountability measures while ensuring each school remains rooted in its local community.    

Finally, Catholic MATs across the country have been able to use their ‘family of schools’ model to pool resources, better enabling them to ride out the pressures caused by the pandemic. 

This year the CES celebrates its 175th anniversary. The education system has undergone many substantial changes since 1847, and our role throughout has been to support the bishops through them. It is a function we will continue to fill for many years to come.

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