Plan to free schools from local authorities could harm ethos, says Catholic education chief
BY ANNA ARCO
THE CATHOLIC Education Service (CES) has warned Catholic schools against taking up Government proposals to become academies.
Reacting to the publication of the Academies Bill, Oona Stannard, the CES’s chief executive and director, said the proposals could jeopardise a school’s Catholicity.
Miss Stannard said Catholic schools hoping to take up academy status faced losing independence over admissions, sex education, head teachers and hours spent teaching RE.
Under Education Secretary Michael Gove’s proposals schools could become academies more easily.
Schools that have been awarded “outstanding” status by Ofsted inspectors can be fast-tracked to academy status and have automatic approval.
Other schools wishing to be academies will be required to submit a business plan and register with the Department of Education. Decisions on academy status would be made by civil servants and Ofsted.
Academies – introduced by Tony Blair in 2000 – have more independence from local control than comprehensive schools or other state schools. They have more power to set their curriculum, their budgets and the length of time pupils are kept in school.
Miss Stannard said the CES had received a verbal promise from the Department of Education that trustees of Catholic schools retained power to veto a governing body’s application for academy status.
She said she had received queries from Catholic schools about the new proposals but urged “great caution in the exploration of what is offered by the Academies Bill as it is presently drafted”.
She said that while the funding opportunities for academies might look attractive, with academies getting more cash than schools still attached to councils because they get money directly from Whitehall, Catholic schools should be wary of forfeiting independence for academy status.
Catholic voluntary aided schools, she said, were able to buy “a degree of valuable independence along the lines of ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’” because they pay 10 per cent of the capital costs of the school.
She said: “We would be very unwise to trade this for an uncertain future and a higher level of risk.” Trustees of Catholic schools would be unlikely to give their permission for the governing bodies to seek academy status, she said, for a number of reasons. Catholic schools are already in trusteeship, normally held by a diocese or a religious order. In many cases the land and buildings of Catholic voluntary schools belong to the dioceses or the religious trustees. Miss Stannard said: “They are unlikely to allow the transfer of their assets to what would be an independent school and its ‘qualifying academy proprietor’, ie to give up these assets. “Therefore, a school wanting to become an academy might effectively become ‘homeless’. There is no apparent provision for this in the Academies Bill.” Miss Stannard also voiced fears that, although the Academies Bill said that religious schools would not have to change their admissions policy, it remained far from clear. She cited another clause in the bill which said “the school provides education for pupils who are wholly or mainly drawn from the area in which the school is situated” as posing a potential problem for Catholic schools. At present Catholic schools are free to prefer Catholics over other students in their admissions policies.
Miss Stannard said Catholic schools could only call themselves Catholic with the permission of diocesan bishops. She said: “To go against the wishes of the bishop could call into question whether the schools remain Catholic. The notion of a family of Catholic schools is also very important in our community as is the principle of fairness, particularly towards the disadvantaged and those most in need.” She said voluntary aided schools benefited from statutory protections which helped them “retain and sustain their Catholic character and ethos” which were not protected in the academy model. Under the existing system, the governors of a voluntary aided school are responsible for the school’s sex and relationships education policy. “Such rights need to be protected,” she said.