THE revised Model Articles for Church of England Academies, and national Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Church of England and the Department for Education, both published this week, represent a sea-change in Church of England academy provision.
They combine to consolidate a focus on multi-academy trusts (MATS), with an explicit statement that they will normally have church majority governance at all levels. While there appears to be no requirement that MATs containing church academies change immediately to the new model, I presume that it will be imposed (with, it is clear, minimal opportunity for modification) when revised Articles are needed; for example, on the growth of the MAT through the intake of more schools.
The model replaces previous “church majority” and “church minority” models. While the preference for church-majority governance is clear, the model allows various governance options with a minimum of 25-per-cent church representation. This will no doubt lead to lively local debate, both for new MATs and when existing ones are required to change.
In turn, this will put considerable pressure on diocesan boards of education (DBE), and on the strategic plans which each of them already has, or will have, to produce or revise. These will be crucial for the future, and will need careful thought. It will, I think, however, be harder for the decisions taken by any one diocese to be used as an argument in others. Local circumstances vary, and so (less positively) do local aspirations.
The wording of the Memorandum of Understanding substantially enhances the part played by the DBE in academy conversions, and in the conduct, development, or assessment of existing MATs. In part, this corrects a perhaps too national emphasis in the previous MoU, but in part also has an impact on the already imperilled autonomy of academy trusts themselves.
In addition, two significant changes give us cause for concern, especially as they appear to be of a piece with other developments in recent years.
First, the wording in both the revised Articles and the revised MoU in respect of the impact on the trust deeds that underlie almost all Church of England schools has been changed. In the absence of any explanation from either the National Society or the DfE, it is difficult to see any positive reason for this, leaving us concerned that the result is a further reduction in the part played by, and impact of, these trusts and their trustees, which I have already noted in the new site transfer arrangements agreed with the National Society, and currently included in the Levelling-Up and Regeneration Bill.
Second, the important concept of the diocesan corporate member (DCM) in academy trusts has been changed so as (a) to require the formal delegation of some of its powers by the DBE to the DCM; and (b) so as to leave certain DBE powers outside the scope of the DCM, and consequently exercised from outside the academy company.
Both these changes appear to me to be exceedingly unwise, and I wonder why they were thought necessary. They (and other drafting issues of a technical nature — including some errors) vitiate what might otherwise have been an important step forward.
The sea now entered might prove to have very choppy waters.