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Levelling-up Bill will protect religious character of church schools, says Bishop of Chelmsford

23 May 2023

New clause will require local authorities to transfer land to academy trusts

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A NEW clause in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill will protect the religious character of church schools as the Government moves towards full academisation, the Bishop of Chelmsford, Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, has said.

The wide-ranging Bill, which seeks to implement the Government’s manifesto to reduce geographical disparities across the UK (News, 8 October 2021), passed its second reading in the House of Lords on Monday night.

During a marathon eight-hour debate, which concluded late on Monday evening, a government amendment was carried which added a new clause to the Bill requiring local authorities to transfer land to academy trusts. This clause was lifted from the Schools Bill, which was scrapped late last year, to the disappointment of the Church of England education office (News, 7 December 2022).

Dr Francis-Dehqani spoke in favour of the amendment, on behalf of the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, who is the lead bishop for education.

She told peers on Monday that the new clause would “safeguard statutory protections relating to issues arising from the occupation of land by Church academies. The decision not to progress the Schools Bill might have meant that this uncontroversial but important change to legislation would have been lost, so it is very good to have the amendment in this Bill, which will maintain the important legacy of educational endowments that provide land for the purposes of a school with a religious character.

“This is important for all schools with a religious character, not just Church of England schools, and it will remove a significant barrier on the journey to academisation for Church schools, which is vital in the Government’s policy aims, as such schools make up one-third of the entire school sector and seek to serve local communities up and down the country.”

The Government’s plan for every school in England to be part of — or in the process of joining — a multi-academy trust (MAT) by 2030 was set out in its white paper Opportunity for all, which heralded the Schools Bill.

Dr Francis-Dehqani said that “further work” with the Government was required on developing a “family” of church schools in each diocese. “But it also requires legislation with regard to the way land is held on separate charitable trusts for use by academy companies. This amendment provides that legislation.”

This was, she said, “a vital step towards ensuring that school sites continue to be used for original charitable purposes, enabling schools with a religious character to engage with the changing educational landscape.”

Speaking after Dr Francis-Dehqani, Baroness Pinnock, a Liberal Democrat peer, said that “the problem with this group of government amendments” was that “a miscellany of issues has been put together because this is a levelling-up Bill and we can throw anything in”.

She asked for assurances that the Bishop’s comments were “accurate and this is entirely about schools with religious foundations, because that is not clear. . . It is important that land use for schools is clear — whether they are part of a trust or a local authority — because otherwise future changes are very difficult.”

The “compulsory swap” of premises between a local authority and an academy or trust was concerning, she said. “What local consultation will there be and will it be a democratic decision?” She raised potential issues of school relocations, provision of school places, planning consent, and costs.

Baroness Hayman, a Labour peer, agreed about the apparent forced transfer of land: “I do not think any school should be forced to go down a route that it does not want to go down.”

Responding to these points on behalf of the Government, Baroness Scott said that there were a few non-religious schools that had charitable site trustees. She continued: “It would be a compulsory swap only if the trustees are being asked to surrender their interest in the current site in exchange. We would expect such arrangements to occur only after the usual processes for relocating a school, which would include consultation and a consideration of the impact of moving places from one site to the other.”

Bishop Butler said on Tuesday that the legislation would “provide reassurance to dioceses regarding academisation and the protection of land provided for the purposes of a church school. We look forward to our continued work with the Department for Education on governance arrangements which will sit alongside this legislation to support Diocesan Boards of Education.”

The Director of the Catholic Education Service, Paul Barber, agreed that the amendment was “a welcome measure to safeguard the charitable purpose of school land. The Catholic Church is the biggest provider of secondary education and second largest provider of primary schools, with nearly 850,000 pupils, and this legislation will help ensure the Church’s mission in education is protected as schools move toward a multi-academy trust model.”

Writing for the Church Times in February (Features, 10 February), Howard Dellar, who is a senior partner and head of the Ecclesiastical, Education, and Charities Department at the solicitors Lee Bolton Monier-Williams, said that the land clauses originally drafted in the Schools Bill were “open to being interpreted as changing the nature and scope of the existing trusts that govern the land on which schools stand, especially the trusts that apply to Church of England schools. It is crucial that any future Bill must include these matters within the Bill itself.”

The education adviser at Lee Bolton Monier-Williams, David Whittington, said of the new clause on Tuesday: “Something like this provision is undoubtedly needed as at present there is no statutory provision for the transfer of replacement sites for academies where the existing sites are held by trustees.

“However, the wording of this amendment exactly copies the wording of clause 30 of the Schools Bill,” he said, and was therefore “subject to exactly the same criticisms” set out for that section at the time (Features, 10 June 2022).

This included, he said, the fact that “the amendment deals with replacement sites only and not with either new sites or extended sites for both of which there is statutory provision for voluntary and foundation schools.”

He went on to say that the wording had been altered “to imply that the value referred to is the value to the local authority, not the value to the trustees. There can be a considerable difference. The sum concerned also now has to be agreed in advance for academies and in effect becomes a condition of the transfer. This is not the case with transfers in respect of voluntary or foundation schools.”

Mr Whittington concluded that the factsheet accompanying the new clause “needs more careful wording” to avoid the suggestion that a “trustee might decline to be party to the transfer . . . and retain their old site for other purposes”. This, he said, would be a “disaster for . . . diocesan boards of education, since it would enable trustees to attempt to remove their assets”.

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