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Dioceses get tough with national Church over future of education

07 July 2022

iStock/Church Times

TENSIONS have arisen between diocesan and central church authorities over how academies with a religious character should be protected under the terms of the new Schools Bill.

Bishops in the House of Lords, and the C of E’s Chief Education Officer, the Revd Nigel Genders, have largely welcomed the Government’s move towards a centralised education system in which, by 2030, every school in England would be part of — or at least in the process of joining — a multi-academy trust (MAT) (Features, 10 June).

Diocesan directors of education (DDEs) around the country, however, have warned that the increased powers in the Bill granted to the Secretary of State could undermine the localised control of 1535 church academies in England.

The DDE for Ely, Andrew Read, who chairs the Association of Anglican Directors of Education (AADE), on Tuesday welcomed challenges to the first draft of the Schools Bill in the Lords. “Clearly, parliamentary processes have whittled down the wish-list of wider system-control initially presented by the Government in the first draft of the Bill,” he said.

“However, whatever adjustments are made, it remains very important that the Government and national Church recognises and supports the assertion that it is the capacity of dioceses to manage change at a local level which will be the key operative in creating a strong and contextually relevant church academy system of the future.”

Mr Read was speaking shortly after he attended a meeting of C of E and Roman Catholic school, academy, and MAT leaders, hosted by the C of E education office on Monday. He was concerned that central church spending was going on “the MAT subscription networks and teacher-training programmes, etc.” — they were laudable, but just “window-dressing if there is a parallel under-investment in those tasked with the heavy lifting of local system redesign: the dioceses and their boards of education”.

And he warned that the present pattern, of diocesan governance of “a local family of church academy trusts”, was “at risk of extinction, with previously distinctive Christian characteristics a mere historical footnote to institutions with culturally aligned values disconnected from belief: church by name but not by nature”.

At a meeting between the AADE and the Schools Minister, Baroness Barran, last month, DDEs had been reassured by the Government that the existing Memorandum of Understanding — a formal (but non-statutory) agreement between the DfE and all dioceses through the national Church, regarding decisions about MATs — would be “lifted and shifted” into any new governance structure, thereby protecting the religious character of church schools. This would continue to give dioceses the right to approve or disapprove changes to church schools.

“We are not being naïve,” Mr Read said, however. “We need to make sure that this happens.” If it did, he said, “The diocesan context — the diocesan boards of education — would remain very central to the approval (or disapproval) of anything that might be proposed at the local level, on behalf of all local church schools and their pupils and families.”

This required a “very strong local and regional understanding of school and community need” that diocesan boards of education (DBEs) had developed over decades, he said, “and should not be second-guessed centrally by the national Church acting anxiously in haste and inadvertently becoming an extension of a DfE chasing national conversion targets”.

He continued: “It would be too easy as a national Church to adopt some of the Government’s anxiety-driven centralised modes of operating (particularly by putting national church staff on DfE payrolls), through fear of losing church control. What matters here is the independent quality, not just the complicit quantity, of planning.”

Last month, John Edwards was appointed the new director general of the Department of Education regions group, which will lead nine renamed Regional Schools Directors (formally known as Regional Schools Commissioners, most of whom have been reappointed), who will continue to scrutinise academies and intervene on behalf of the Secretary of State. The Regions Group will be responsible for implementing the principles of the education White Paper published in May (News, 27 May).

The DDEs were already working in regional groups, Mr Read said. This would be formalised, so that the Regional Schools Directors were co-ordinating directly with dioceses through appointed DDEs. This was not, however, the original proposal of the national Church, which had intended to appoint Regional Directors internally, paid for by the DfE. After stern feedback, this had later been scrapped in favour of working with DBEs through DDEs.

“There were some robust conversations between dioceses and the national Church about making sure that diocesan models are seen as remaining important,” Mr Read said. “What we’ve got to do as a national Church is make sure that we collectively speak as one, but operate a well-proven model where the monopoly of discerned wisdom is recognised as sitting at the local level. . .

“As DDEs, we have to continue to forge good relationships, a critical partnership, with our counterpart Regional DfE Directors. We are here to play our part in improving the system for the common good, supported by a central national-church team working in service to each diocese.”

He concluded: “What I don’t want is the national Church being inadvertently complicit in the creation of unsustainable structures for the sake of meeting arbitrary targets to achieve a new nationalised system, all through fear of losing church control.” The DDEs had cultivated the existing relationship with MATs (many of which they run) to facilitate decision-making to deliver the conversion of the remaining church schools into academies, he said.

Responding on Wednesday, Mr Genders said: “The national Church is working with all of the different parts of the educational landscape including dioceses, MAT leaders, secondary-school heads, and DfE Regional Directors to listen carefully to what each part of the system is saying about the way to best engage in the developing policy and delivery landscape.

“We are seeking to shape our national work in a way which ensures the extremely positive partnership that we enjoy with policymakers continues and provides the maximum opportunity for the Church to engage at national, regional, diocesan, and local levels.”

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