ALL SCHOOLS, including church schools, will be required to become academies within six years, if the Government’s plans for education, set out in a new education White Paper last week, are realised.
Although the current Education and Adoption Bill had been widely understood as a holding process, and further legislation had been expected, the ministers’ decision to reveal the scale of their plans, before the new Bill had received the Royal Assent, is almost unprecedented.
Consultation on the White Paper has already begun, it is understood. Draft legislation is expected to be ready by the summer recess, and an announcement could be made in the Queen’s Speech.
If implemented, the White Paper’s proposals would topple the last vestiges of local authority management of schools, established in the 1902 Balfour Act and extended in Rab Butler’s 1944 education settlement. The only responsibility left to local authorities would be that of ensuring that there were sufficient school places in their area. All schools — even the smallest village school — would become an academy, or part of a multi-academy trust (MAT), which is now the Government’s preferred organisational template.
For the Church of England, the White Paper underlines the importance of the forthcoming Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Government, in relation to its position as a significant provider of schools. Church negotiators will be looking for robust safeguards on distinctiveness and other critical issues — not least that of safeguarding trustee-held church land. Under their plans, the Government would not take possession of trustee-owned church school sites, but any fresh regulations would be scrutinised minutely.
The C of E’s chief education officer, the Revd Nigel Genders, this week welcomed the commitment by the Government in the White Paper to partnership with the Churches, as well as its strategy to maintain the religious character and ethos of church schools. These would be ensured by strong relationships between Regional Schools Commissioners and dioceses, it says.
But Mr Genders recognised the extra challenges that the plans present to dioceses that have many small schools. More than 60 per cent of all schools with fewer than 200 pupils are C of E schools. Some of these have already become part of diocesan multi-academy trusts, though few of these have enough pupils to meet government guidelines on size. The Government is expected, however, to compromise on MAT numbers in rural areas.
In last week’s Budget, the Chancellor, George Osborne, made accommodation for the large sums of money that will be necessary to finance the Education Secretary’s plans. Schools that convert to academies will get the funds they need to pay for the process. But the scale of change will place a heavy burden on diocesan education teams. Lichfield diocese’s director of education (DDE), Colin Hopkins — one of the longest-serving DDEs — said that diocesan workload would increase substantially. “So far, only 30 of our 206 schools have become academies. If the rest are to do so under new trust arrangements, bishops must ensure we have greater capacity,” he said this week.
The White Paper also shines a light on the future of governing bodies, making it clear that weaker bodies will be disbanded, while successful ones will be asked to take on more schools. Governing bodies will no longer have to include a parent; the emphasis will be on those with professional managerial and financial skills.
While general coverage of the White Paper has concentrated on the school system, less media attention has been paid to the far-reaching changes to teacher training that would accelerate the shift from university education departments to schools. The universities, moreover, would no longer be responsible for awarding qualified teacher status (QTS). The QTS would be replaced by a tougher two-stage qualification, validated by schools.
The proposals markedly affect the Cathedral Group of church universities, ten of which are C of E institutions. All grew from teacher-training colleges, and although they now have wider academic remits, all retain significant teacher-education departments and, between them, educate one quarter of all primary teachers.
Under the proposals, a proportion of university teacher-training places would be retained, but allocated only to well-regarded departments; these would be encouraged by longer-term government commitment. The head of teacher education at the C of E/RC Liverpool Hope University, the Revd Professor Kenneth Newport, said that the general high standards of teacher education across the Cathedral Group were grounds for optimism.
The Revd Dr John Gay, research fellow at the Oxford University Department of Education, said, however, that the Cathedral Group could increase its allocation of teacher training by emphasising its expertise in preparing students to work in church schools. “There is a strong argument to be made at a national level by church leaders rather than by individual universities,” he said.
Question of the Week: Is the Government's academy programme a good idea?