Catholic schools contemplating academy status should tread very carefully

Catholic schools are under a lot of pressure to convert to academies

As with many priests and those involved in parishes, schools are part of my life which cannot be escaped. More than this I find a great deal of fulfilment from my involvement in several schools within my area. I particularly appreciate how Catholic schools relate to parishes and the important opportunities that this provides. At present I am a governor of two schools and in one of those I am a chair of governors.

Those who are involved in our Catholic schools will only be too aware of the pressure and drive for our schools to convert to academies. Whilst this may present opportunities I am also concerned that much that has been hard won may be lost without careful consideration and planning, particularly in relation to how our schools relate to the local Catholic community.

The Present Situation

Historically in England and Wales Catholic schools have had Voluntary Aided status. In Voluntary Aided Schools the majority of the governing body is made up of Foundation Governors who are appointed by the Church which helps to maintain the Catholic identity of the school.

Governors are the employer of staff rather than the local authority and staff generally sign a Catholic Education Service Contract which aims to ensure that staff are supportive of the Catholic life of the school as well as the normal requirements of a teaching or support staff contract.

Voluntary Aided schools have the responsibility for their own RE curriculum and at present Bishops Conference recommendations state that 10% of the whole curriculum time should be devoted to RE. Usually schools follow a programme of RE provided by the diocese or religious order. Schools have control over their own admissions criteria (usually directed by diocesan policy) and continue to enjoy a great deal of freedom regarding the development of the Catholic life and ethos. Whilst our schools may not always be the beacons of catholicity that they should be, the Voluntary Aided status has largely served us well over the years.

Why Become an Academy?

In most cases Catholic schools are latecomers to academy discussions but it now seems an inevitable fact that most will convert at some point. While the government has stated that no school will be forced to become an academy there are factors which make it feel like our hands are tied.

Many Local Authority Education Departments are shadows of their former selves. As schools have become academies and cutbacks hit many have reduced services to the point where there is not a lot left at the centre. For many schools becoming an academy is the only way to continue to receive services that the Local Authority provided. This will only accelerate as more and more schools become academies and leave the local authority’s control and support.

Many dioceses are also coming to the realisation that there is safety in numbers and have argued that conversion to some form of Academy structure is a way of safeguarding Catholic education, especially in relation to weaker schools which can be protected and strengthened within a larger grouping.

Present funding systems also favour larger groups of school with more funding available when certain size thresholds are reached. There are certainly incentives and an apparent necessity to go down this route.

The possible impact on the schools relationship with the parish

Many Catholic schools have already become academies and a large number are in the process of conversion or are in discussions about making the transition. As I experience such discussions in relation to the schools I am involved in it is becoming increasingly apparent that whilst there may be positives, there is also a great deal which is could be at stake.

Within voluntary aided schools, foundation governors are nominated by their parish priest and appointed by the diocesan bishop (usually delegated to the diocesan education service). This has ensured that the governance of the school remains rooted in the local worshipping community. Communities can feel a sense of ownership of their school and the presence of practicing Catholics as foundation governors can foster good relationships.

With the development of academies there is a real risk that control of schools is taken away from the local community. Many schools are becoming part of a Multi Academy Company, or a similar structure, composed of up to twenty separate schools. Governance of such schools is placed with an academy board which has oversight of all of the schools in the Multi Academy Company (often referred to as a Big MAC). There is no guarantee that each school within the company will have representatives on this main board and in many larger groups this is clearly not feasible.

Each school continues to have a school committee, with foundation committee members but they are no longer the employers, do not appoint their own headteacher and many of their previous powers and responsibilities as governing bodies are passed to the more remote Academy board. Such responsibility may be delegated back to the local committee but there is no guarantee that this will be the case. Rather than giving control and autonomy to local communities, many models that are being developed remove freedoms that our local schools have long enjoyed.

Those involved in school governance will know that the demands placed upon them have increased over the years. Ofsted has had a massive impact upon governance and an underperforming governing body can be make or break when it comes to those much coveted Ofsted ratings. Even in my relatively short ten years in school governance I have noticed massive changes in the commitment required. I spend far more time involved in schools that ever before and being a school governor goes far beyond merely attending meetings and committees.

It is important to remember that school governance is completely voluntary and it is becoming far harder to recruit people from parishes who have the suitable skills and the necessary level of Catholic practice and commitment. Many capable people are also wary of being burdened with such responsibilities.

The demands of being an academy board member appear to be even greater and the responsibilities significant. Many boards are already struggling to recruit appropriate people. It hard enough to recruit to a local parish school where there is an emotional bond but it is even harder to persuade people to join what to all intents and purposes is a company board with a multi-million pound budget. It can seem daunting to say the least.

In addition we still need to recruit people to each local school committee. In truth there may not be enough faithful Catholics with the needed skills and experience to go around. The worry is that gaps may be filled with nominal or lapsed Catholics who are attached to the school but this would be a disaster for the flourishing of an authentic Catholic identity. As a priest I have an incentive to be a school governor as part of the responsibility to my local community and parish. I would not feel the same about a board which in many ways can seem quiet anonymous.

Catholic schools, particularly primary schools, have a very important place in the life of the local parish. There is already in some places a sense of disconnect as many families no longer practice the faith. It would be a great shame if this were to be amplified as new systems of governance and organisation create a further sense of distance.