THE Bishop of Lincoln, Dr John Saxbee, chairman of the Board of Education, offered a qualified welcome to the Government’s new academies programme in the House of Lords on Monday. He spoke during the Second Reading of the Academies Bill, which will allow any school graded “outstanding” by OFSTED to become an academy by September.
The Church of England was the biggest provider, with 27 academies educating 34,000 children in areas of significant social deprivation. But the Bill’s proposals shifted the basis on which the Church had engaged with the programme so far, he said.
“We identify entirely with the Secretary of State’s desire to encourage greater independence for schools with a good track record, but not if outstanding status is largely attributable to particular admissions policies, or at the expense of neighbouring schools.
“That would skew the academy culture towards the more privileged and away from the more disadvantaged in our society; so the Church of England’s commitment to disadvantaged pupils and their families — the reason for our being in the academies programme at all — would be diluted. We welcome the Minister’s reassurances on that point in terms of the Bill’s intentions, but, as it stands, we must remain sceptical.”
Dr Saxbee welcomed the provisions for the automatic transfer of religious character, and for the protection of land and title, but said that technical issues and the transfer of trust deeds and capital needed further attention. Governance, admissions arrangements, and partner-ships helped to determine a school’s religious character. The Bill gave no details about governance.
The Bill also provided for transfer of admissions policies, including those of selective grammar schools. The new wave would include schools drawing in Christians to the possible exclusion of local people. “We would encourage the Government to look again at how admissions to academies — not least Church of England academies — can be essentially inclusive rather than otherwise.”
The Church was also concerned, he said, about how benefits consequent on partnerships with local authorities — and with diocesan boards of education — could be provided.
Dr Saxbee “warmly welcomed” the Government’s commitment to encouraging partnerships between high-performing academies and weaker schools. “We would wish that to be a requirement rather than a mere expectation.”
The Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Christopher Hill, said: “I support the Bill, provided that we recognise that structures alone cannot deliver a good education without an ethos of purpose and common good among pupils, parents, teachers, governors, and support staff.”
He raised the question of rival academy projects, or of the possibility of an academy project’s “killing off” a neighbouring school. “I invite the Coalition Government to talk to all the stakeholders about the local strategic planning of academies rather than simply allowing laissez-faire competition.”
It was left to the Revd Lord Griffiths of Burry Port to ask for the C of E’s schools to be treated differently. “It is legally obliged to make provision for all who come its way. Let a Methodist minister say that, because the Bishops may feel a bit more reluctant to do so.”