“IS THIS true?” asked a school governor, the wife of a priest friend, after a Guardian article reported last week: “The Government is currently passing a law that will require it to grab land from the churches.” Hers was one of several requests for reassurance from other Guardian readers.
So is the Church facing a land-grab? The basic answer is: not quite yet, but, as Advent approaches, there is much to make the thousands of trustees of church-school sites more than usually watchful (News, 20 November). Both the Education and Adoption Bill that is currently passing through Parliament, and a second one that is likely to follow it in this Parliament will present challenges to the security of church-owned land — and to its gatekeepers, the trustees (Comment, 25 September). There are battles ahead.
ALMOST all Church of England schools occupy “private” land and buildings, which are owned by charity trustees. The trust deeds require these to be used solely for the purposes of a C of E school. The circumstances under which these can be sold are strictly limited: usually when the trustees want to move their school to a new site.
When, as happens rarely, a school becomes redundant, the land is sold commercially, and the proceeds are recycled to support other church schools in the area. In these circumstances, the Secretary of State for Education has no powers of direction: he or she cannot tell the trustees what to do, or take their land from them. Only if such a site is “publicly funded land” (which is the case for a small minority) do such powers possibly come into play.
The new Education and Adoption Bill, however, would allow — and in some cases “require” — the Secretary of State to order a failing school, or even one deemed to be “coasting”, to become an academy. She would also decide which academy company — not necessarily a church company — would run the school.
A highly possible scenario, therefore, is that the Secretary of State would attempt to force the site trustees to make their land available by licence or lease to an academy company with no church character. In effect, they would be asked to use their land in breach of trust, and in contravention of the Charities Act. By refusing to give way and act in breach of trust, they could find themselves in a very isolated position.
While some school sites may be held in trust by Diocesan Boards of Education or Boards of Finance, many trustees are vicars, churchwardens, and private individuals. They could come under enormous pressure to act in a particular way, as a group or individually, or they might not agree among themselves about a way forward.
THERE are two ways to mitigate this problem. One would be for the Government to insert a clause in the new Bill to say that if a church school were required to become an academy, then the company taking it on must be a church company. Given the Government’s resistance to amendments so far, this seems unlikely to happen.
The second, less powerful move (but one which we believe would be helpful) is for the trusteeship of the several thousand Church of England school sites to be transferred to Diocesan Boards of Education (DBEs). This would ensure a common approach, at least within each diocese.
It remains to be seen, however, how far local trustees would be prepared for this. They might perhaps prefer the DBE to become an additional trustee rather than a replacement. Both options are possible.
Either way forward would no doubt be resisted by some, but either of these changes would relieve the pressure on vulnerable individuals in a particular locality, and enable the maximum protection to be provided for the religious character of the church schools that make up one third (C of E and RC combined) of the whole school provision.
The question is whether the Government is prepared to stand by the concordat agreed with the Churches in 1944, and honoured ever since. But perhaps it might want to do away with church schools — as they could be seen as too much of a problem — and seize their property for secular academies.
Howard Dellar is head of the ecclesiastical, education, and charities department at Lee Bolton Monier-Williams, and Secretary of the Ecclesiastical Law Society.