The Department for Education (DfE) has published memoranda of understanding formally setting out its agreements with the Catholic Church and Church of England (CofE) on the arrangements that will apply to all church schools as they convert to academies. The memoranda, which have been drawn up following last month’s Government white paper announcing that all schools will be required to become academies by 2022, provide a range of assurances to the churches that the control they currently enjoy over their schools will be explicitly protected in a fully academised system, and also afford them certain privileges not afforded to other groups involved in education. The British Humanist Association (BHA), which has frequently warned about the scope for increased religious influence in the education system as a result of academisation, has called for corresponding safeguards to be drawn up so as to protect schools with no religious character from being subject to church control.
Stating from the outset, and on a number of occasions throughout, that the DfE ‘remains committed to securing the religious character’ of both Anglican and Catholic schools as they convert to academies, the two documents are perhaps most striking for the control they give to the churches over that conversion process. For instance, both memoranda set out ‘the statutory right and requirement for the consent’ of the relevant diocese in allowing a church school to become an academy, where before only a requirement to consult with the relevant religious body existed. Indeed, though it is stated in the documents, it is not entirely clear whether or not such a statutory right or requirement actually exists.
Furthermore, for church schools that are ‘eligible for intervention’, the agreements mean that the churches will effectively have control not only over ‘who should sponsor the school’ – in Catholic schools the ‘presumption’ being that the diocese’s ‘preferred sponsorship arrangements will be accepted’ – but also over the ‘governance structures’ of that sponsor should a diocese itself not be capable of sponsorship. Bizarrely, the CofE’s memorandum even contains the provision that dioceses can appeal to their Regional Schools Commissioner for help if they deem that a ‘church academy is failing to maintain and develop its religious character and ethos to the satisfaction’ of the diocese.
Neither memorandum gives any indication that the DfE will move to allay fears or suggest safeguards in the face of the concerns raised by many regarding the permissiveness of academisation to even greater religious influence in the education system. Such concerns have primarily been driven by a number of recent instances of religious organisations assuming control of converting schools with no prior religious character, as was the case with a Muslim academy chain taking over three community schools in Blackpool and Bradford last year, and a CofE-led academy currently doing the same with four community schools in Newcastle.
BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson said, ‘The underlying assumption in these documents that religious schools somehow need special protections in order to maintain their religious ethos is ludicrous. Ours is an education system in which the state doesn’t simply fund “faith” schools, it also grants them a range of legal freedoms to openly discriminate against pupils, parents, and teachers.
‘Current arrangements for academy conversion, particularly with regard to governance, leave the door wide open for religious organisations to assume greater control not only over their own schools, but also over schools with no prior religious character, and it’s therefore absolutely vital that safeguards are brought in to accompany the move towards full academisation. We will certainly be lobbying both the DfE and parliamentarians more widely to see those safeguards introduced.’
For further comment or information please contact the BHA’s Faith Schools and Education Campaigner Jay Harman on firstname.lastname@example.org or 020 7324 3078.
Read the memoranda of understanding: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/church-schools-and-academies-memoranda-of-understanding
Read the BHA’s previous news item ‘Government publishes plans to turn all schools into academies, with far-reaching implications’: https://humanism.org.uk/2016/03/18/government-publishes-plans-to-turn-all-schools-into-academies-with-far-reaching-implications/
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 the BHA’s news item ‘Church of England diocese in takeover of primary schools with no religious character: https://humanism.org.uk/2016/03/10/church-of-england-diocese-in-takeover-of-primary-schools-with-no-religious-character/
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.