THERE are 1,065,079 children and young people in Church of England schools. This means that there are eight times as many children in our schools on Monday than in our churches on Sunday, or during the week.
Church schools are a success story for the Church of England, and are popular with parents. They are a fabulous mission opportunity, and a principal — indeed, vital — instrument for transmitting the Christian faith, and a Christian understanding of life to future generations.
Since the report The Way Ahead (2001), the Church has responded magnificently to Lord Dearing’s challenge to expand provision and embrace the agenda of Christian distinctiveness. Dearing’s mantra: “Don’t mess about!” (splashed on the front cover of the Church Times in 2001) still rings true today.
The academy project gives us an opportunity to renew our purposes in education for the 21st century, returning to our roots: national schools. If we are to seize these opportunities, then diocesan boards of education (DBEs) need to be properly resourced, and their well-being should be a priority for the whole Church. This is not a time to weaken them, but to build them up.
The Church of England Education Office is consulting on potential revisions to the Diocesan Boards of Education Measure 1991. Diocesan directors of education (DDEs) have long considered that the current Measure does not adequately reflect the realities of the radically changed landscape in education.
Since 2010, when an early move by the Coalition Government was to pass the Academies Act, the weakening of local authorities, together with the growth of academy trusts, has changed the role of DBEs and increased their workloads dramatically.
The Church of England is now the largest sponsor of academies. Varying degrees of church representation exist in church-based academy trusts. Those church schools that continue to be maintained by the local authority are increasingly relying on dioceses for practical and pastoral support, as backing from their local authority wanes.
In 2018, one quarter of all Church of England primary schools and three-quarters of its secondary schools are now academies. The Church can no longer rely on its historic stake in education to court influence, but must demonstrate its capacity to drive school improvement in this new era of accountability. Government ministers expect this.
Accordingly, the consultation document seeks views on whether DBEs should be given powers to intervene, or request intervention, in underperforming church schools. On the face of it, such powers would strengthen the ability of DBEs to support struggling schools; but the corollary is that they must be adequately resourced to ensure that any such intervention is carried out successfully.
There are difficulties around challenging academies, reflecting the complexities of company law. Strengthening the part played by DBEs through the various legal agreements that aim to provide a guarantee of Christian distinctiveness in Church of England academies is essential.
Most of the consultation document is, however, concerned with the constitutional arrangements for DBEs. The current Measure provides for DBEs to be either incorporated bodies (companies limited by guarantee) or separate unincorporated associations with their own individual constitutions. The important point is that they are currently required to be constitutionally separate from the diocesan board of finance (DBF), even where the DBF acts as trustee for an unincorporated DBE’s trust funds.
Currently, only 14 DBEs are incorporated, while almost twice this number are unincorporated associations. As the consultation document points out, many unincorporated DBEs appear to be operating as if they are subcommittees of the board of finance — or, at least, not as separate entities. Symptoms of this “confusion” relate to accountancy treatment, charity registration, and reporting arrangements. In addition, there is a more general issue about the employment of DBE staff: most diocesan education staff are employed by boards of finance.
There is a clear intention in the consultation paper to address all these various anomalies, and to allow some local variation within a more consistent constitutional framework. The paper suggests giving the Archbishops’ Council, for the first time, power to update a new DBE Measure by Order in line with future national legislation, and to issue guidance on how DBEs are to be constituted and operated.
The consultation enumerates the “benefits” and “drawbacks” of three constitutional options for DBEs: (i) incorporated; (ii) unincorporated; or (iii) “statutory committees of the DBF”. The unincorporated option is listed as having the most drawbacks, while the DBF committee option has the most benefits. By the end of the document, it appears that the most realistic options are for DBEs either to be incorporated or to become statutory committees of the DBF.
If DBEs become statutory committees of the DBF, a significant degree of their current independence could be compromised. The board of finance would become the board of education, with responsibility for church schools. It would be required to delegate its educational functions to a committee, to be called the diocesan board of education. Those members of the DBE with educational expertise could potentially be removed.
Under this option, there is always the risk of financial liabilities’ transferring upwards to the DBF, if a complete separation of functions is not followed, especially in relation to academy trusts. Complete transparency will be essential. As the document points out, “particular care” will be required to ensure that the DBE’s restricted funds, held on trust for educational purposes, are ring-fenced and correctly represented in the DBF’s accounts.
Any revision of the current DBE Measure carries political risks. A revised Measure will, of course, have to be passed by the General Synod and approved by the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament. Ministers could be tempted to reduce the influence of the Church on its own schools. They and regional schools commissioners have sometimes been exasperated that dioceses have been able to block their authority to force schools into particular trusts, or limit schools’ autonomy in choosing academy arrangements.
It is not clear how education ministers might wish to respond to potential changes to the constitution of DBEs, which are statutory bodies, and whether Parliament would wish to approve giving intervention powers to subcommittees of the DBF.
It is 20 years since the General Synod passed the resolution “Church schools stand at the centre of the Church’s mission to the nation” (1998). Much has been achieved since then, but much could still be lost. Diocesan boards of education must have the resources and status to continue promoting a Christian vision for education.
Colin Hopkins was secretary to Lord Dearing’s Church Schools Review Group and director of education for the diocese of Lichfield from 2006 to 2018. He is now Strategic Director for Academicis.