CHURCH schools in rural areas will need to belong to academy trusts of at least 35 schools, the Church of England has acknowledged, after the publication of the Government’s Education White Paper this week.
The White Paper sets out plans to request all schools to join multi-academy trusts (MATs) by 2030; each trust will educate about 7500 children.
A Church House spokesman said although the 7500 was a guide, there would need to be “rethinking in rural contexts”. Rural MATs with about 35 schools will have to become “normal”, he said.
The Church of England is the biggest provider of academies in England, with 254 Church of England MATs. But only about one third of church schools, 1535, are currently academies, which means that more than 3000 church schools will need to convert or be en route to conversion by the end of the decade.
The Government has promised more money for diocesan MATs, and signalled a willingness to increase the number of church schools: “We recognise the costs which dioceses and other religious authorities face in establishing trusts, and we will develop options for financial support, allowing strong Church and faith trusts to drive even higher standards in these schools.
“We are also committed to ensuring that all providers of schools with a religious character remain able to open new schools, once all schools are in trusts.”
It has also promised to bring forward legislation to “ensure that statutory freedoms and protections that apply to Church and faith maintained schools also apply to academies with a religious character”.
The Church of England’s chief education officer, the Revd Nigel Genders, welcomed the move to convert all schools to academies.
Commenting on the White Paper in a statement, he said: “Since the beginning of the Academy programme, I have always spoken of the need for interdependence rather than an approach to the school system which has been driven by individualism and autonomy. Our work on rural and small schools has highlighted the need to work together and for schools to embrace change through formation of structural collaborations and partnerships, so I am delighted to see this emphasis in the White Paper.
“For us, the purpose of connection and collaboration is not simply the economies of scale or the benefits of sharing practice across a group of schools (important as they are) but it is fundamentally about doing better for the children we serve and the desire for us to move from being a network of schools and leaders who share a common vision to being a powerful movement for transformational education for the common good.
”It’s a movement which needs to work for the small rural schools (of which the Church of England provides the vast majority across the country) as well as the large urban schools (where the majority of our 1 million children learn).”
The paper, Opportunity for All, also makes a series of commitments to raising standards in reading, writing, and maths by 2030. The Government says that 90 per cent of children leaving primary school must reach expected standards, compared with 65 per cent in 2019.
The Government also pledged to increase the national GCSE average grade in English language and maths from 4.5 to a grade 5.
Research by the Education Policy Institute shows that the poorest pupils in the UK fell further behind during Covid than children from wealthier families.
While primary-school children showed signs of catching up on learning last autumn, teenagers had suffered further learning losses, their research showed.
In the autumn term, secondary pupils in the north-east, north-west, and Yorkshire and Humber were, on average, three months behind the level that they might previously have achieved, it found.
Unions have criticised the White Paper’s proposals for lack of ambition and a narrow focus.
The White Paper also requires all schools to offer a minimum school week of 32.5 hours, although most already do so. Other proposals include a national register for children not in school, and raising the starting salary for new teachers to £30,000.
The Department for Education also set out a consultation paper on supporting children with special educational needs, which centres on offering earlier intervention to help children to thrive in school.