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Schools cautioned on ‘academy status’

14 July 2010

by Margaret Holness, Education Correspondent

GUIDANCE on the implications for church schools of the Academies Bill, which had its Third Reading in the House of Lords on Tuesday, is being prepared by Church of England education chiefs.

With the backing of the National Society and the Association of Angli­can Directors of Education, the guid­ance will be sent out to diocesan boards of education next week, it is understood.

The Government wants the Bill, which is expected to begin its final progress through the Commons later this week, to be on the statute book before the parliamentary recess. This would allow the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, to launch his new academy programme in September, although some parlia­mentary experts doubt whether that can be achieved.

C of E education leaders and their legal advisers have expressed concern that ministers have resisted giving diocesan boards of education an official role in the process whereby those church schools that wish to, apply for academy status.

The Bishop of Lincoln, Dr John Saxbee, who chairs the Board of Edu­cation, this week warned church schools: “While we are grateful for the way in which the Government has listened to our concerns and acted on some of them, we would still advise church schools to think very carefully indeed and seek the advice of their diocesan director of education before applying for academy status.”

The Bill already states that schools with foundation governors must seek the consent of the appointing body. In most cases this would be the dio­cese, but there may be a few schools where, for historical reasons, this does not apply. But the guidance proposes that consultation between schools and diocesan boards over the issue should become standard practice.

Places in the first tranche of academy conversions will only be open to schools rated “outstanding” by OFSTED, a category that includes 669 Anglican primary schools and 35 C of E secondary schools (about one third of all Anglican second­aries).

The deputy director of the National Society, Rob Gwynne, says that some of these schools have already indicated an interest in academy status, and a full list of those likely to apply was being prepared. “We want to work with the Bill to achieve the best possible outcome for our schools and their pupils,” he said this week.

But Colin Hopkins, who is Diocesan Director of Education for Lichfield and chairman of the Diocesan Directors’ Association, said they remained concerned about the potential fragmentation of the system, and the effect of the Bill on schools in challenging areas, and on small schools, many of which are C of E foundations.

“In Shropshire, for example, two thirds of all primaries are C of E schools, most of them small village schools with comparatively high unit costs. If several secondaries and larger primaries became academies, the local authority would have less money available for other schools, threatening the potential closure of small schools.”

There were indications during last week’s Report stage, however, that the Government is keen to maintain the integrity of the denominational sector. Ministers have resisted amendments sponsored by peers with secularist sympathies to place further obstacles in the way of schools with a religious character. These included attempts to allow the governing bodies of denominational schools to change their character during the process of conversion; the imposition of a mandatory number of parent governors; and further constraints on the curriculum, admissions policy, and employment procedures.

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