Heads fear faith schools ‘academised by back door’

6th January 2017 at 00:00
Move that would see 600 schools controlled directly by the diocese criticised

Hundreds of church schools would be converted into academies under diocese plans attracting sharp criticism from headteachers and governors.

Headteachers are also concerned that the proposals, seen by TES, would erode schools’ autonomy, cause job losses and cost millions, amounting to “forced academisation by the back door”.

The plans would see nearly 600 church schools covered by three dioceses in central and southern England, educating about 200,000 pupils, run by academy trusts responsible for up to 22 schools each.

The faith schools currently reserve some places on their governing bodies for parent representatives and people appointed by the parish church, as well as the local authority. But the plans would see governance controlled directly by the school’s diocese or its representatives, who would sit on a board of directors with the power to appoint and dismiss all trustees.

Ministers proposed, in a White Paper published in March, to force all schools to become academies by 2022. This policy was abandoned in May, following opposition from Conservative backbench MPs.


Concern over loss of autonomy

Rob Kelsall, senior regional organiser for the NAHT headteachers’ union, said that the plans could amount to “forced academisation by the back door”. This has been denied by the dioceses. Mr Kelsall added that many school leaders were wary of their schools losing autonomy under the proposals.

With the government funding the legal costs of academy conversion at £25,000 per school, the NAHT also warned that the cost to the taxpayer of the change in these schools alone could exceed £12.5 million.

Governing bodies have to opt in to the plans, but headteacher and governor sources questioned how optional they would feel to schools for which the dioceses are already highly influential.

Under a proposal put to headteachers and governors of schools in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Westminster on 1 December, 180 schools would join 12 multi-academy trusts (MAT) with a combined income of £451m. Each MAT would have a single board of directors acting as the governing body for up to 15 schools. A document presented at that meeting states that heads and governors would not have to join a MAT immediately, but that they should “join when the time is ready”.

In Birmingham, Catholic heads have been sent plans for the formation of 15 MATs, educating 80,346 pupils in total across 34 secondary schools and 201 primaries.

'The whole discussion was about business and money. I was outraged'

MATs would also run up to 156 schools covered by the London Diocesan Board for Schools (LDBS), under plans put forward in September by Elizabeth Wolverson, LDBS director of school support services and chief executive of LDBS Academies Trust.

Senior figures in the LDBS would appoint the directors on these trusts, which would cover all schools in the diocese by 2021.

All would receive support from a non-profit school-improvement company whose directors include Ms Wolverson and Inigo Woolf, who is also LDBS chief executive and a controlling director of LDBS Academies Trust.

Ms Woolf said: “There is no pressure on voluntary aided [non-academy] schools to become academies unless there are benefits for pupils in converting. It would be remiss of LDBS not to have contingency plans should one or more schools be required to convert [because of poor performance] or want to convert for the benefit of their pupils.”

‘No choice’ but to change

However, a governor who was present at the LDBS presentation said she was “gobsmacked”. She said: “We were basically told, ‘You have to become an academy in the next five years; you have no choice’. The whole discussion was about business and money. I was absolutely outraged by the end of it.”

Lisa Pate, who was appointed by the Westminster diocese to serve on the governing body of a Catholic primary in Barnet, said: “I feel there is just the right balance at the moment, in terms of [the diocese] influence and I worry about what is coming.

“As a governing body now, we scrutinise in great detail the running of the school. I’m not sure that’s going to be possible now things are going to be managed over several schools.”

A survey by the Birmingham Catholic Primary Partnership found that only 13 per cent of the 58 heads who responded said the plans there would allow their institutions to “develop and flourish”, while 43 per cent disagreed.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT, said: “We’ve got no problem with schools choosing to convert to academy status and the churches have a key role to play in supporting schools, but we have had a very large number of concerns from school leaders in Birmingham, saying that they do not understand the rationale for this change at this time, and that it does not suit the needs of their school and community.”

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Birmingham has been contacted for comment.

A Roman Catholic Diocese of Westminster spokesperson said the academies strategy was a response to “great uncertainty and financial austerity”, and also aimed to promote and secure “Catholic mission and identity in education”. The diocese said that it would “continue to work collaboratively” with all schools and added: “We must emphasise that there will be no forced academisation.”

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