BY MARK GREAVES
DOZENS, if not hundreds, of Catholic schools are preparing to convert to academy status, it emerged this week.
The news comes after 13 schools, including five schools in the Diocese of Westminster, became academies last week. The total number of Catholic academies, which are independent of local authority control, is now 68.
Gail Meill, director of education for the Diocese of Nottingham, said that six Catholic schools in the diocese were now academies, but that by the end of the academic year there would be 40.
She said that by converting in clusters – a group of schools becoming academies under a single academy trust — schools could support each other more.
As a result of the cuts, she said, many local authorities had been forced to reduce their services or hand them over to outside bodies and were “not necessarily able to offer the same level of services to schools as had been given in the past”.
She said that groups of academies could offer each other the support that once might have been provided by the local authority. She also explained that academy status offered a financial advantage and the chance for schools to strengthen their Catholicity across the curriculum. She added that voluntary-aided schools actually already had freedom over their curriculum, “but governors and heads didn’t always recognise they had it”.
Up until now dioceses have paid 10 per cent of capital costs for their schools, but if schools become academies these costs are covered entirely by the Government.
Last week’s wave of conversions involved three schools run by religious orders – two by the Faithful Companions of Jesus and one by the Society of the Sacred Heart – as well as a joint Catholic-Anglican school and four schools in the dioceses of Nottingham, Hexham and Newcastle and East Anglia.
Meanwhile, the Catholic Education Service for England and Wales (CESEW) has rejected the claim that Catholic schools “shun” poorer pupils.
A report by the Guardian newspaper suggested that three-quarters of Catholic primary and secondary schools had a more affluent mix of pupils than their local area. The claim was based on an analysis of the number of pupils eligible for free school meals.
Maeve McCormack, policy manager at the CESEW, said the argument was flawed because poor families did not necessarily claim for free school meals. She said: “The lower number of applications for free school meals in Catholic schools is an issue of real concern to us, as it suggests that many children who would be eligible for free school meals are not claiming them... for some families we know there is a cultural stigma attached to claiming free school meals and we are keen to work to remove that stigma and ensure that children from all backgrounds are given the support that they need to benefit.” She pointed to data from the Department of Education which showed that 18.6 per cent of pupils at Catholic primary schools live in the 10 per cent most deprived areas of England, compared with 14.3 per cent of primary school pupils nationally. About 17 per cent of pupils at Catholic schools lived in the 10 per cent most deprived areas compared to 12 per cent of pupils nationally.