Many Church of England and Catholic schools operate on sites owned by special charitable trusts.
But under a legal technicality, when they academise and move site, councils currently only have to give these trusts a 125-year lease – whereas maintained schools moving site would be handed land freehold.
The Department for Education pledged last year to end this “unequal” setup by mandating that councils hand over sites freehold. In exchange, trusts will hand over their old sites or pay councils the proceeds from the sale.
The change was proposed as part of the schools bill, which was subsequently scrapped.
But last week, the government amended its levelling-up and regeneration bill to enact the change.
Encouraging church schools, which make up almost a third of state schools, to become academies is a key plank of the government’s ambition for all schools to be in trusts.
Neither church has set central targets for academisation
But Nigel Genders, the Church of England’s head of education, last year cited the land issue as one of two significant barriers. Extra resources for the transition process was also a problem.
Speaking in a House of Lords debate last week, the Rt Revd Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, the Bishop of Chelmsford, said the amendment was “important for all schools with a religious character…it will remove a significant barrier on the journey to academisation for church schools, which is vital in the government’s policy aims.”
Government data shows there were 1,590 Church of England academies in January 2022, up 4 per cent on the previous year, and representing about 35 per cent of the church’s schools. There are now 280 Church of England MATs.
Academisation of Catholic schools is moving at a greater pace. As of last January, there were 809 Catholic academies, up 17 per cent on the year before, representing around 41 per cent of Catholic schools. There are 77 Catholic academy trusts.
Paul Barber, the director of the Catholic Education Service, said the amendment was a “welcome measure to safeguard the charitable purpose of school land”.
“This legislation will help to ensure the church’s mission in education is protected as schools move toward a multi-academy trust model.”
Neither church has set central targets for academisation, and both told Schools Week that decisions would be made by local dioceses, rather than by central organisations.
The amendment passed at the bill’s committee stage in the House of Lords last week. It must now go through report stage and have its third reading before going back to the Commons for amendments to be considered.