LAST month, some church schools were notified that they had been judged as “coasting” under the new regulations that had just come into force. Coasting schools are those that, according to the criteria set out in the regulations, have not enabled pupils sufficiently to fulfil their potential over a three-year period. They are not failing schools; they are just not doing as well as they could.
The definition became law in January as a result of the Education and Adoption Act 2016, allowing the Secretary of State for Education the ability to identify such schools for the first time under regulations. The definition applies to academies through their funding agreement, and, owing to amendments to the Bill in the Lords as it passed through Parliament, applies retrospectively to existing academies, too. Very small schools are excluded from the definition.
The good news is that only two per cent of church primary schools have been deemed to be coasting, in comparison with just over four per cent of community primary schools. At secondary level, the overall percentage of church schools judged coasting was half that of community secondaries. Overall, nine per cent of academies received the definition. No separate figures are given for church academies.
ONCE a school has been defined as coasting, Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs), acting on behalf of the Secretary of State, will start discussions on an improvement plan, taking into account the wider context and whether the leadership needs additional support. The Department for Education (DfE) expects that few coasting schools will be directed by their RSC to become a sponsored academy, or to move, if already an academy, to a new trust. Automatic conversion to an academy is not required.
In the case of coasting church schools, the RSC must follow the Government’s Memorandum of Understanding, agreed with the C of E and the Roman Catholic Church, as well as DfE guidance. Indeed, the Memorandum says that the diocesan board of education and the site trustees must both be notified in the case of a coasting church school. It is important to check that site trustees are actually informed.
An important consequence of the new regulations is that RSCs have greater freedom in developing improvement plans. The fear that an extension of the academies agenda will end in the closure of many small rural schools has been somewhat reduced.
We do not expect the present Government to bring forward a significant Education Bill during
the life of this Parliament. It seems that the education system may be moving into a period of evolution rather than revolution.
Howard Dellar is head of the Ecclesiastical, Education and Charities department of Lee Bolton Monier-Williams, Solicitors.