Thousands of faith schools reborn as academies

6th May 2011 at 01:00
CofE gets key role in admissions, curriculum and funding as local authority influence withers

Thousands of faith schools are set to become academies in a fundamental shift in the role of the church in state education.

A "domino effect" will mean that up to 70 per cent of the Church of England's 4,800 schools will convert to academy status within five years, according to the chairman of the church's board of education, the Rt Rev John Pritchard, Bishop of Oxford.

A number of Catholic and minority faith schools are due to follow suit, resulting in considerable new powers for church schools over admissions, curriculum and funding.

The CofE's influence is also set to grow as it fills the void created by cuts to local authorities. As well as supporting its own schools, the church is likely to provide a range of services to non-faith schools, Bishop Pritchard said.

"In the long run that there will be a major shift to academies because it is what the Government is determined shall be," he said.

"The local education authority is going to wither on the vine in many cases.

"We will be part of that whole movement but have to make sure there is still a family relationship (between schools) as we go through this process.

"It may be that there are schools that are traditionally outside the church family that say you are providing the kind of thing we need and they would want to relate to us in an affiliated way. It's all to play for."

Bishop Pritchard said he expected many CofE schools, particularly smaller primaries, to form joint academy trusts to give them increased economies of scale. New free schools set up by Christian groups might also join these trusts, he added.

The CofE and Catholic Church had both been wary of the offer of converting existing schools into academies. Fears had been raised that giving the schools greater independence could damage the links with their diocese, a cornerstone of church education.

But Bishop Pritchard said a deal had been struck with the Government that will give dioceses powers over appointing governors, enabling them to protect the schools' Christian character.

Latest government figures reveal that more than 40 CofE schools have now applied for academy status, with hundreds more expected to quickly follow their lead.

A smaller number of Catholic schools have applied, but there is growing interest after the Catholic Education Service withdrew its opposition to conversions. The Archdiocese of Southwark is understood to have identified five schools that will become academies under a pilot scheme.

A number of CofE schools contacted by The TES said there was a strong financial incentive to make the switch. Christopher Bagguley, head of St Michael's CE High School in Chorley, Lancashire, said: "In our local authority, we are already one of the worst funded schools."

"We would have nowhere to go when the cuts come and would not be able to develop."

As previously revealed in The TES, Bishop Pritchard wants CofE schools to limit the number of places given to religious families, saying that just 10 per cent of places should be reserved for practising Anglicans.

He admitted that large-scale conversion to academy status, which would give more schools control over their admissions for the first time, could make that aim more difficult. "One danger is that a school may be held in thrall to particular governors who want to maintain the purity of the school stock," he said. "I would hope that the advice we give will encourage good honest discussion about what our schools are for."

Keith Porteous Wood, director of the National Secular Society, said widespread academy status would put too much power in the hands of the church.

"A mass conversion of faith schools into entirely self-governing academies freed from the moderating influence of local authorities will be the churches' dream and most parents' nightmare," he said.

"It is a betrayal of the nation's children to give the churches virtual control of education, without having to pay a penny, especially while church attendance is in freefall."

Original headline: Thousands of faith schools to be reborn as academies

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