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Keep our nerve, and schools can thrive

by
01 April 2016

Schools face challenges from new legislation, but C of E provision is well-placed to flourish, argues Colin Hopkins

THE White Paper Educational Excellence Everywhere, published on 17 March (News, 24 March), has unequivocally set out the Government’s stall about the future of the schools’ system: “By the end of 2020, all schools will be academies or in the process of becoming academies; by the end of 2022, local authorities will no longer maintain schools.”

Over the next six years, 14,500 maintained schools, including those 80 per cent of primary schools that are not currently academies, will be required to convert to academy status. The Government is systematically dismantling the 19th-century “dual system”, in which the Churches and the State worked in partnership. The advent of academies and free schools has brought about a proliferation of school providers, as new sponsors, trusts, and organisations (including other faith groups) have taken responsibility for running schools.

The continuing fragmentation of the schools’ system is to be driven at a pace. Further radical powers are envisaged to direct schools to become academies in underperforming local authority areas, or where schools have not yet started the process of becoming an academy by 2020. This is an ideologically driven programme that is fundamentally concerned with dismantling the part played by the local authorities, while centralising power on the Secretary of State for Education’s desk.

There is a good reason that the majority of primary schools have so far been reluctant to convert to academy status. Becoming an independent school requires the governors, who assume the place of company directors, to accept accountability for all aspects of school performance, employment, finance, safeguarding, and governance. It is a challenge with substantial risks.

The White Paper has been issued even before the Education and Adoption Bill has received Royal Assent, which was scheduled for 4 April. This new legislation is clearly a precursor to the proposed further reforms. It gives renewed impetus to the process of turning all schools into academies, significantly extends the powers of the Regional Schools Commissioners, and seeks to bring so-called “coasting schools” within the scope of intervention.

The preferred model of school organisation, emphasised in the White Paper, is now to draw together several schools under a single Multi Academy Trust (MAT), in which schools join with each other as a private limited company, under a single board of directors, but with local governance arrangements for each school that generally reproduce the status quo.

 

MINISTERS know that the co-operation of the diocesan boards of education is essential to delivering their plans for the process of turning schools into academies, and specifically for a widespread diaspora of MATs. The White Paper reaffirms the State’s commitment to working with the Churches and other faith bodies to protect the religious character of their schools.

A new Memorandum of Understanding between the National Society and the Secretary of State for Education sets out how the Church of England is expected to work with the State, and lists various protocols relating to a range of situations. These include the potential re-brokering of underperforming church academies into alternative trust arrangements.

The language is alarming: schools have become commodities that can be traded according to contract, merged, and “taken over by the best headteachers”. They are no longer governed by a strict framework of laws, but by various contracts, which can always be renegotiated.

 

THE ascent of the MATs also makes it likely that Church of England schools might join trusts comprising mainly community schools. In such circumstances, diocesan directors of education will need to pay particular attention to the governance arrangements, since these are critical to securing the long-term distinctive Christian character of our schools.

Majority church governance, such as that enjoyed by voluntary aided schools, is the most secure guarantee of distinctiveness, but where this is not possible (or appropriate), then dioceses will have to insist that the undergirding legal arrangements for MATs give extremely robust protections to church character.

Diocesan boards of education are navigating a way through this complexity. There is now a significant workload implication. Bishops must ensure that diocesan directors of education are adequately resourced to manage the transition of large numbers of C of E schools to academy status, while retaining their distinctive Christian character.

So much also now depends on our ability to appoint directors and governors who have the capacity to manage all the complexities of company law and compliance with regulatory requirements. The Church might consider advertising for a pool of competent people who are able and willing to deal with this.

The level of accountability from on high is challenging. While diocesan directors of education once dealt with a relatively small number of local authorities, we now have to relate to an ever increasing number of separate trusts. This fragmentation is going to increase.

Another aspect of the disintegration of the local-authority-led schools system is particularly troubling. The Church of England has many small schools in rural areas. Even where a number of these form a MAT, they may still have fewer children than are necessary to secure long-term financial viability.

There are no government guidelines on actual numbers. Totals of between 2000 and 4000 pupils are often bandied about as the preferred size of a viable MAT. But my diocese, Lichfield, has fully functioning MATS with fewer than 500 pupils. The Government must now act decisively to ensure the continuity of schools in rural areas.

 

DESPITE the challenges, however, there is significant cause for optimism. Dioceses have, on the whole, positioned themselves well to benefit from government policy. Nationally, the Church is the largest sponsor of academies, and church academies remain part of the diocesan family of schools through their constitutional arrangements.

Many dioceses have established their own MATs, and are growing their capacity within the academies’ framework. We now have the opportunity to extend our influence through the free schools initiative and partnership with Community schools and other providers.

To be a Christian is to be an eternal optimist. Lord Dearing’s report The Way Ahead in 2001 called for the creation of the equivalent of 100 new Anglican secondary schools, through the development of new schools or the expansion of existing ones, to provide about 80,000 new secondary places. Fifteen years later, we have an extra 19 secondary schools and an additional 100,000 pupils overall. Of these, 39,000 are at secondary level, reaching almost half Lord Dearing’s target.

 

WHILE we want children to be the best they can be, and to help underperforming schools to improve, we must not give in to voices that calculate schools’ value solely in terms of data, inspection reports, and their contribution to Britain’s economic standing in the world. As one colleague put it: “Shanghai mathematics are off the menu.”

Only the Churches can speak with the authority of a national perspective in education. The interests of children must precede the focus on structures. Our task is still to serve the most disadvantaged in our society, and to form young people who have the emotional resilience to provide the ethical leadership that our world needs. This, truly, as the White Paper avows, would be “educational excellence everywhere”.

 

Colin Hopkins is Director of Education for Lichfield diocese.

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