The Church of England is planning to take over four non-religious schools in the north east as part of the government’s academisation plans.
Secular campaigners have raised concerns that this will represent a “transfer of public land to the church”, while the diocese has downplayed the matter.
Five schools are expected to become part of a multi-academy trust (MAT) proposed by the Church of England, but only one has a religious ethos.
The Diocese of Newcastle has said that each school’s ethos would be protected, but the National Secular Society (NSS) has called it a “deeply anti-secular development”.
Stephen Evans, the society’s campaigns director, said: “If this MAT goes ahead it’s hard to see how the non-religious schools within it can realistically be protected from an encroaching religious ethos, particularly if the most senior people in the trust are all advancing the interests of the church.”
In October, Schools Week reported that the Tauheedul Education Trust, which runs ten Muslim faith-based schools, was set to take over three non-faith community secondary schools.
Tauheedul said it had “no plan at any stage to implement a faith ethos” but concerns were raised locally, where only 0.7 per cent of the population is Muslim.
Government guidance states a mixed-faith and non-faith trust must preserve the non-religious nature of their community schools. A local governing body for the community school must also be established.
The CofE currently has 4,600 schools in England, of which 560 are academies. It would not confirm if it was planning other similar trusts across the country.
A diocese spokesperson said the schools would continue their current ethos and each school’s governing body would be tasked with protecting it.
Questions have been raised about land ownership, with the NSS planning to include the matter in its submission to the education select committee’s inquiry into MATs.
The society’s draft submission, seen by Schools Week, states: “In many cases public land will be transferred from local authorities and placed under control of the local diocese for 125 years, and, given the permission of the secretary of state, the church could use it however it likes.
“We regard this as a deeply anti-secular development and we urge the committee to raise the democratic deficit of this potential ‘land grab’ with the department.”
Evans said: “While the church’s interest in education is primarily about advancing its mission, academisation could see the church adding to its already impressive property portfolio.”
But Jonathan Simons, head of education at the think tank Policy Exchange, said mass control of land by the church was “unlikely”.
He said MATs that included voluntary-aided (VA) schools must have 50 per cent church representation on the trust’s board, meaning that “in theory” a church-heavy MAT could end up leasing “large chunks of land that were formally local authority land”.
However the government would still own the freehold. It was “unlikely large numbers of secular schools would agree to join a MAT that had 50 per cent church representation at the top level”.
The diocese spokesperson said: “As with any academisation of non-church schools, the land will transfer to the trust company.
“Such land could not be sold without secretary of state consent and would be likely to be subject to certain conditions such as reinvestment into educational purposes.
“The trust will be a charitable company so any decisions taken must be in accordance with the charitable objects of the company.”