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Government will protect church schools, Education Secretary tells C of E conference

30 January 2023

Max Colson/Church of England

The Education Secretary, Gillian Keegan, at the C of E National Education Conference on Friday

The Education Secretary, Gillian Keegan, at the C of E National Education Conference on Friday

THE Government is still committed to protecting schools with religious character as it continues to strive for universal academisation, the Education Secretary, Gillian Keegan, told a National Church of England Education Conference on Friday.

In the opening keynote address to the 900 people who gathered for the conference in Union Chapel in north London on Friday morning, Ms Keegan said: “We will protect your schools, so that, when they become academies, they retain the statutory freedoms and protections that apply to church schools. It means working in each area to shape the right plan at the right pace that builds the quality that our pupils need.”

Plans for every school in England to become part of — or in the process of joining — a multi-academy trust by 2030 were first set out in a White Paper, Opportunity for All, last March (Features, 10 June 2022).

Legislation to protect schools with a religious character under these plans were later detailed in the Schools Bill, which the Government had said would “raise education standards across the country”. The nuances of this were scrutinised in the House of Lords over the summer, including by Bishops, many of whom were critical of aspects of the Bill (News, 15 July 2022). Several amendments were proposed but lost.

In December, Ms Keegan told the Education Committee that the Bill would not be progressing to its Third Reading — a move which the Church’s chief education officer, the Revd Nigel Genders, described as a “disappointment” (News, 9 December 2022).

Ms Keegan was one of four keynote speakers at the conference on Friday. Referring to her own education in faith schools, Ms Keegan said: “I really value the role the Church of England plays in educating our children. Its reputation for excellence in schools speaks for itself. . . Your schools are more likely to be good or outstanding than those without a religious character.”

She continued: “Put simply, without the Church of England, pupils across the country will be learning less and doing worse. And a big part of that is that you’ve used the academy trust model. This is the structure that we think is going to make the biggest difference for our children. And we know it only works if focused on improving quality all the time, always striving for excellence.”

Max Colson/Church of EnglandSchool children perform music and dance for the 900 attendees at the conference

Ms Keegan said that she would “work tirelessly to support quality teaching and spread best practice. I’m taking forward the review of regulation and commissioning so that we can do this to help improve outcomes for all of our children. And that’s why I also want more schools to be in high quality trusts to support you.”

Concluding, she acknowledged that there was much still to do, but said that her door was “always open”. “My ask of all of you is that you now work with me to keep as many schools open and as many children in school as possible during the disruptive strike action.”

The National Education Union (NEU) said on Friday that more than 100,000 teachers could strike over pay during seven days in February and March, affecting 23,000 schools.

The Children’s Commissioner, Dame Rachel de Souza, told the conference that the English school system was founded by the Church, “and that is the reason that we don’t just do academics, it’s the reason that we’ve always had a strong pastoral focus.”

Speaking about the positive effects of quality schools on families and communities across the country, she said: “I want to see a children’s social-care system that puts children and their needs at its heart.” She looked forward to the forthcoming implementation report on this.

The Archbishop of York, in a short address, recalled when he was an assistant curate, meeting with a headteacher who had “started pouring her heart out” about the pressures and loneliness of leadership, unable to please everyone, and “the reality of failure.”

Archbishop Cottrell said that he had “learned something about myself and about leadership”, and how important it was to support one another spiritually and pastorally — whatever the job. Only through this could communities be built and schools flourish, he said, and this was “one of the great advantages” of church schools.

Concluding, he told the conference: “Pray. . . Pay attention to your own need for rest and refreshment. Love one another.”

The final speaker was Lord Boateng, who chairs the Archbishops’ Racial Justice Commission. He noted that it was Holocaust Memorial Day and spoke about the legacy of racism “in our world, in our country, in our schools, in our communities”, recounting themes of his address to the General Synod a year ago (News, 8 February 2022).

He concluded, to rousing applause: “Teachers matter. Faith Schools Matter. Fighting hatred, bigotry, and racism matters. And so I want to big up that the work that is being done in the Church of England, on all those things.”

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