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Church of England side-steps rules in attempted takeover of community schools

Contravening the Government’s model documentation for multi-academy trusts (MATs), a Church of England diocese is seeking to gain majority control of seven schools with no religious character as part of plans for a new MAT in Yorkshire. Despite the fact that just two of the nine schools in the proposed MAT are voluntary controlled church schools, the Diocese of York is requesting majority membership of the trust, given it ultimate control over the running of all the schools.

Humanists UK, which has repeatedly warned about the Church of England’s efforts to use Academisation to expand its influence within the education system, has called for the proposals to be rejected by the Department for Education (DfE), and for reforms to be introduced preventing religious organisations from gaining influence over schools without a religious character.

Currently, when church schools and non-church schools join the same MAT, a so-called ‘mixed MAT’ is formed. This arrangement automatically gives the Church influence over the non-church schools in the trust, but the extent of that influence depends on the type of church schools involved. If the school or schools are former voluntary-aided (VA) schools, a more religious type of faith school, then the Church is entitled to appoint a majority of the trust’s members, regardless of the balance within the trust between church and non-church schools. This in itself seems to Humanists UK to be unfair. However, if the school or schools are former voluntary-controlled (VC) schools, a less religious type of faith school, the Church may only appoint up to 25% of the trust’s members. These two models mirror the balance of influence that exists in VA and VC schools between Church and local authority.   

In this case, the proposed mixed MAT in Yorkshire would contain just two former VC church schools, meaning that under the Government’s rules, the Church of England should only be entitled to appoint a quarter of the trust’s members. However, the public consultation document reveals that the Diocese of York is seeking three of the trust’s five members, stating that ‘because the proposed MAT will include Church of England schools, a majority of members are nominated by the diocese to ensure that the trust will guarantee that those schools retain a Christian ethos.’

Concerningly, the consultation document does not explain how the non-denominational, inclusive ethos of the non-church schools in the trust will be similarly protected in the face of majority Church control. This is despite the fact that the Diocese of York will assume broad powers to influence them, including by strictly enforcing Christian collective worship in assemblies or putting a religious slant on certain aspects of the curriculum, such as relationships and sex education or religious education.

At a consultation event on Tuesday, local parents and residents raised concerns about the proposed arrangements, as well as the lack of local oversight and representation.

Humanists UK Education Campaigner Jay Harman commented, ‘We have been warning both the Government and the general public about the permissiveness of Academisation to undue religious influence in our schools for some time. Here, again, we see it playing out. The Church of England already controls a quarter of state-funded schools in England and now it is steadily trying to assume control of the rest. We have written to the Department for Education to express our concern not just at this latest land-grab, but at the broader inappropriateness of the education empire-building being conducted, at taxpayers’ expense, by a Church that counts just 15% of the population as adherents. As we have said on a number of occasions in the past, reform is sorely needed.’    

There are a number of examples of similar Church takeovers that have taken place in recent years. In May last year, the Church of England sought to assume overall control of nine non-church schools in Northumberland despite having just one of its schools in the proposed MAT. In 2016, Newcastle Diocese was criticised by the local MP, local councillors, and local parents after seeking similar control of four primary schools with no religious character. Research presented by Humanists UK to the House of Commons Education Committee in late 2016 revealed that at least 350 non-church schools are now controlled by the Church of England through mixed MATs.   

Notes

For further comment or information please contact Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Jay Harman on jay@humanism.org.uk 0r 0207 324 3078.

Read the proposed STAR MAT’s consultation document: http://kellington.n-yorks.sch.uk/data/documents/mat-consultation-2017-dec.pdf

Read the Department for Education’s model documents for mixed MATs involving voluntary controlled church schools: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/254858/multi_model_cofe_vc_nonfaith_articles_v2.doc

Read Humanists UK previous news item ‘Religious landgrab continues as Church tries to gain control of nine non-church schools’: https://humanism.org.uk/2017/05/31/cofe-proposes-to-gain-majority-control-of-nine-school-mat-despite-it-containing-just-one-church-school/

Read Humanists UK’s briefing on mixed MATs: https://humanism.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016-08-30-Final-Briefing-on-mixed-MATs-oral-evidence.pdf

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Humanists UK recently changed its name from the British Humanist Association: https://humanism.org.uk/2017/05/22/bha-becomes-humanists-uk/

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