THE Education and Adoption Bill was introduced in the Commons on 3 June 2015, and raises a question about how diocesan boards of education (DBE) evolve into the future, as we move further away from the old world of local-authority maintained schools. So, is the time now ripe for the Church to debate the need for DBEs to be given new powers over standards and ethos in a revamped DBE Measure? It is a question that the Church must debate as a matter of urgency.
This new Bill is important, as it seeks to give effect to the manifesto pledge to turn failing and coasting schools into academies. If a school is deemed to be failing, the Secretary of State, Nicky Morgan, must make an order for the school to become an academy — she has no choice. In the case of a coasting school, however, she can use her discretion over whether to order it to convert.
Until now, site trustees and those appointing governors had to consent to any school’s becoming an academy. When the Bill comes into force, they will merely have to be consulted. The Church should surely be concerned.
The Bill represents a further significant step in granting direct intervention and direction powers to the Secretary of State. Policy appears to be (as indicated in the party manifesto) that much of this may be exercised by the regional schools commissioners, but this is not made explicit in the Bill.
Lest anyone be in any doubt over the direction of travel, the Prime Minister announced, on 15 August, his Government’s vision that all schools should become academies.
The particular challenge to the Church is that small primary schools have not embraced the Government’s academy agenda with the same enthusiasm as the secondary sector, where the majority of secondary schools are now academies. As 65 per cent of the Church of England’s schools have fewer than 210 pupils, and the Church currently runs more than half the small primary schools in England, this represents a significant issue for the Church. Whether many of these small schools would survive academisation has to be a serious concern.
More than 80 per cent of the Church’s 4700 schools are rated “Good” or “Outstanding” in OFSTED terms, but only a fraction are academies. More must be willing to convert and embrace the academies revolution if the Government is to fulfil its objective.
THE main issue for the Church’s Education Division, as with the Government policy generally, is one of capacity to deliver.
Although Mr Cameron said recently that he “wants the power to be in the hands of the head teacher and the teachers rather than the bureaucrats”, the governing body must remain able to hold them to account. The challenge to diocesan boards of education and parishes, then, is to find governors for church schools with a range of suitable skills and qualities.
Dioceses will need to equip and train these governors not just to fill the traditional part played by a “foundation governor”, but also to understand that school improvement, personnel management, and business ability are all crucial ingredients for an academy’s success, as well as, ultimately, the quality of the education it provides.
So the issues that the Bill presents to the Church are multi-faceted. First, to encourage more able volunteers to be governors who are ready for the responsibility of running academies; second, to continue to build up central staffing structures in boards of education that deliver the services needed now and in the future; and, third, dioceses will need to collaborate across traditional diocesan boundaries.
In a sense, all of this brings us back to where I started, in that a debate needs to be had about whether a new DBE Measure is now needed.