BY ED WEST
THE BISHOPS of England and Wales are to decide next month whether to allow voluntary-aided schools to become academies.
Their decision follows a series of meetings between Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, and Oona Stannard, director and chief executive of the Catholic Education Service (CES).
In a letter to Catholic head teachers last week Miss Stannard said: “It is likely that the issue of academies and free schools will be a major item on the agenda of the bishops’ conference for their November meeting.” She said the decision would involve “deliberations about the mission of our schools and our vision for education”.
The Government, she said, had “shown itself to be keen to listen to us and would go away to consider how our needs could be met”.
But in her letter Miss Stannard also announced that parents wishing to set up free schools would have to allow half of their intake to be from different faiths if they were oversubscribed.
Eighty-four Catholic institutions were among 1,700 primary and secondary schools that expressed an interest this summer in becoming academies.
Among those were Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School in west London, Cardinal Newman in Coven try, St Edmund’s in Kent, Cardinal Heenan in Liverpool, Finchley High School in north London and St George’s in Westminster.
Previously the CES had urged Catholic schools to exercise “great caution” in seeking academy status.
The latest school to apply was St Gregory’s Catholic College in Bath, which is waiting for a decision from the Diocese of Clifton in December.
Critics of the new system argue that schools could become “homeless” because dioceses and other religious trustees own the schools’ land and buildings, and are unlikely to give them away.
Miss Stannard said: “Current feedback from bishops indicates that they are very mindful of the notion of a family of Catholic schools, also of the relationship with local authorities, and of any impact on other schools.
“At the same time, however, careful consideration is being given to the benefits that could accompany becoming an academy.” In her letter Miss Stannard said that new academy schools, if oversubscribed, would be forced to select half of their pupils without any reference to faith.
This is considerably higher than the 25 per cent that then Education Secretary Alan Johnson proposed in 2006, in order “to promote community cohesion”. He backed down after a campaign led by Archbishop Vincent Nichols. Miss Stannard said: “You may be aware that Government has said that a new academy, ie one that is not replacing an existing academy, would have to make available up to 50 per cent of its places in cases of oversubscription without reference to faith.” A spokesman for the Department for Education confirmed that this applied only to free schools and to academy schools “starting from scratch”. Catholic schools converting to academy status would not be forced to change their admissions criteria.
It is understood that “the jury is out” on whether the bishops might choose to allow schools to become academies, and that the CES and the bishops are waiting for the publication of next month’s Education and Children’s Bill, which will give all schools greater freedom over their curriculum, discipline and day-to-day organisation. It is also unlikely that a diocese would set up a free school when it could set up voluntary-aided schools and be allowed total control over its intake.
Rachel Wolf of the New Schools Network said the umbrella group for parents wishing to set up free schools “had not been inundated” by enquiries from Catholic groups “but we have some existing schools who have put in proposals to become free schools, and a few very early stage groups who’ve made enquiries about setting up Catholic schools from scratch”.
Last week Schools Minister Nick Gibb told the CES that faith schools “consistently outperformed other schools”, despite “operating in some of the poorest areas of the country”.
In a speech to the CES Diocesan School Commissioners Conference, he said: “At a school level, almost half of the 200 best-performing secondary schools in the country are faith schools, while 64 per cent of the 200 best-performing primaries are faith schools – of which nearly a quarter are Catholic.
“And as well as having more diverse intakes than other schools, Ofsted recognises that faith schools are more successful than nonfaith schools at promoting community cohesion.” He also praised Miss Stannard and the CES for holding a “constructive dialogue” with the Government.
“I do want to be 100 per cent clear that it would be wrong for us to expect faith schools converting to academies to do anything differently,” he said.
“That is why faith designation will continue into academies and, while they must of course comply with the School Admissions Code so that they are inclusive, academies will be able to continue to give priority to children of their faith.”