The Department for Education (DfE) has published a white paper setting out its plans to turn every state school in England into an academy. Entitled Educational Excellence Everywhere, the white paper states that ‘by the end of 2020, all schools will be academies or in the process of becoming academies’, with the end of 2022 being the deadline by which that process must be complete. Among other things, the move means that local authorities will no longer maintain any schools, as has historically been the case, and no school in England will be obliged to follow the National Curriculum. While there is a lack of detail on many aspects of the proposals, the British Humanist Association (BHA) has expressed concern that in many areas there are currently inadequate safeguards in place to ensure schools remain fully inclusive of those of all religions and none.
Currently around 60% of secondary schools and 15% of primaries are academies. As such, they receive their funding directly from central government, rather than from their local authority, and are also free to manage the day-to-day running of the school in a range of areas, such as drafting their own admission policies, choosing whether or not to follow the National Curriculum, and setting their own religious education (RE) syllabus. As it stands, only schools which are deemed to be failing or ‘coasting’ are to be required to convert to academies – subject to legislation currently passing through Parliament – but the new proposals will mean all schools, regardless of their performance, will be obliged to convert.
BHA Faith Schools and Education Campaigner Jay Harman said ‘The consequences of these proposals are far-reaching, and at this early stage there is much that has not yet been confirmed. Certainly the Government will have to think very carefully about how they plan to address the implications of full Academisation, not least in terms of the potential increase in religious selection in school admissions, but also in terms of RE, SRE, and the religious control that occurs when schools with no religious character become part of religious multi-academy trusts. It would of course be wrong to jump to any conclusions about whether changes might be introduced in these areas, but we will certainly be paying close attention to any announcements that are made over the next few months, and we look forward to working with the Department for Education to ensure that our concerns are reflected in whatever decisions are taken.’
What the proposals mean in detail
Details on many of the implications of the proposed changes are yet to be announced, and will require close scrutiny in the coming months. For instance, there are very poor safeguards in terms of academies with no religious character becoming religious. Such schools can join religiously-run multi academy trusts, as four currently are in Newcastle. They can decide without consultation to present themselves with a ‘faith ethos’, and start discriminating in terms of governance, recruitment of some senior posts, and certain aspects of the curriculum, as well as taking requirements to do with collective worship much more seriously. And they can even decide after consultation to legally designate as religious, and fully discriminate in admissions, employment and the curriculum, which maintained (i.e. non-academy) schools cannot do. A maintained school cannot gain a religious ethos and must shut down if a religiously designated school is to open in its place.
Similarly, voluntary controlled (VC) ‘faith’ schools currently have their admission arrangements set by local authorities, most of whom do not allow these schools to employ religious selection criteria when allocating places to children. However, on converting, VC ‘faith’ schools gain the right to start religiously selecting, and unless new safeguards are introduced, the legislation could therefore lead to a significant increase in the number of state school places that are subject to religious discrimination.
The proposals also have wide-ranging implications for religious education, which is not part of the National Curriculum but for maintained schools with no religious character is instead determined and overseen locally by committees (SACREs and ASCs) appointed by local authorities. Academies do not have to follow their local syllabus, and a decision will therefore have to be made both on the future of the local committees that set these syllabuses, and on what requirements, if any, the Government will oblige schools to follow when it comes to the teaching of RE. It will also have significant implications for sex and relationships education, as maintained secondary schools have to teach SRE including information on STIs, HIV and AIDS, while academies do not have to teach any SRE at all.
For further comment or information, please contact the BHA’s Education Campaigner on 020 7324 3078 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read the Government’s white paper ‘Educational Excellence Everywhere’: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/508447/Educational_Excellence_Everywhere.pdf
Read more about the BHA’s work on religious education: https://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/schools-and-education/school-curriculum/religious-education/
Read more about the BHA’s work on faith schools: https://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/schools-and-education/faith-schools/
The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.