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Lords table amendments to new Schools Bill

16 June 2022

The Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, moves amendments on behalf of Bishop Butler, who was away, on Monday

The Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, moves amendments on behalf of Bishop Butler, who was away, on Monday

MORE than 170 amendments to the new Schools Bill have been tabled by both the Government and peers, including dozens from bishops. The first were debated in the House of Lords this week at the Bill’s Committee Stage.

The amendments include several from the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, who is the lead bishop for education, partly to correct perceived ambiguities in the wording of clauses.

Speaking during the early debates late last week, Bishop Butler, disagreeing with several peers, said that the move to full academisation set out in the Bill was the right one, and therefore warranted the Secretary of State’s being given some additional powers (News, 27 May; Features, 10 June). He was confident that these powers would not be over-exercised with regard to dioceses, because this had not been the case so far with the new Diocesan Board of Education scheme.

Bishop Butler did, however, share others’ concerns about the ambiguity of clauses concerning the new powers of intervention. He described the wording as “both too loose — what are ‘examples’ in legislation? — and too prescriptive and interfering. Somewhere, that balance has gone completely skew-whiff in the way it is worded.”

Later in the debate, he said that there had been much communication between the Church and the Government about the impact of the Bill on faith schools. “The Department [for Education] recognised that there are growing issues connected with voluntary aided and voluntary controlled schools and the move to MATs, which need to be dealt with and must be dealt with by legislation.

“Our experience has been of working behind the scenes with ministers and officials in a very positive and helpful manner. That perhaps explains why we approach it more positively.”

The debate continued early this week. On Monday, the Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, moved amendments on behalf of Bishop Butler, who was away. This included one to clarify the position of voluntary aided schools under the Bill, after concerns that only multi-academy trusts (MATs) that were more than half composed of voluntary aided converter schools would be required to have a majority of church directors and members.

Dr Warner told the House: “For Church of England schools, there will be occasions when schools are not in trusts where former voluntary aided schools are in the majority. For us, there needs to be the same consistency of approach. . .

“We must ensure that there are appropriate regulations for all Church of England schools in trusts; so it is crucial that the Secretary of State must, rather than just may, make regulations in the context of the Church of England to provide legislative protection and assurance for any MATs where there are less than 50 per cent voluntary aided schools within the trust.”

As the Bishop of Oxford had done during the Bill’s Second Reading, Dr Warner sought assurances that this was a baseline, and “therefore does not prevent MATs that do not have a least 50 per cent voluntary aided schools within the trust operating under majority articles”.

Responding on behalf of the Government, Baroness Penn said: “An academy trust in which fewer than half the academies are former voluntary aided Church of England schools can still adopt articles of association in which the majority of directors are appointed by the relevant religious body.

“In addition, as stated in the clause, the Secretary of State will consult before the regulations are first made. This consultation will include appropriate stakeholders, including religious bodies.”

Dr Warner withdrew the amendment. Several other amendments, from Bishop Butler and others, were also withdrawn, or otherwise fell, after assurances were given on behalf of the Government.

Earlier in the day, Dr Warner had also spoken against an amendment to empower local governing bodies to withdraw from an MAT — a move that, the Bishop said, “may inadvertently trigger fragmentation of MATs that are growing, an erosion of strong MATs that are reliant on academies within the MAT for sustainability, and, as a result, [create] wider instability in the system”.

Another amendment sought to introduce a period of consultation with parents and others before an academy without a religious character joined a Church-run MAT. This, he said, was “unhelpful”.

Lord Davies, who supported these amendments, said that “the Church needs to take a more understanding approach to this issue. We have a case in point: a group of parents were faced with the reality of their school being moved from an academy into a multi-academy trust with a Christian ethos. In principle, I am against church schools, but that is not the point here. The point here is whether those parents should have some input before that decision is reached.”

Neither amendment was moved.

Earlier in the debate on Monday, Baroness Barran moved several amendments to the Bill on behalf of the Government, including one to make “specific provision for the Secretary of State to consult the relevant religious body” of trusts with a religious character when exercising a new ministerial power to replace an entire trust board with a board of interim trustees.

This was welcomed by the Bishop of Bristol, the Rt Revd Vivienne Faull, again on behalf of Bishop Butler, and later moved by the House.

Bishop Faull also spoke to an amendment in his name to protect the religious designation of church schools in secondary legislation. She explained: “A necessarily broad approach is undertaken in this Bill in applying legislation for maintained schools to academies through amending regulations. While we can appreciate the need to do this, it is unusual to see primary legislation which enables power to be applied or disapplied by secondary legislation.”

Bishop Faull continued: “It would be inappropriate to allow secondary legislation to have such impact on the designation of character of so many schools.”

Baroness Wilcox (Labour) supported this as a “useful addition” alongside her own amendment, which would remove the statutory power to apply legislation “relating to further education colleges to academies”. She said: “As it stands, these clauses signal a further power grab, empowering a future Secretary of State unilaterally to remove religious designation from a faith school, as noted in the Bishop of Durham’s amendment.”

Baroness Barren did not support either amendment, and neither was moved, but she gave “a clear commitment that the Government will not use the powers in [said clause] to affect the designation of academy schools with a religious character”.

The Lords’ Committee Stage continues next week, when later amendments, including those of the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, will be debated.

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