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Dozens of Catholic schools consider academy status

Eighty-four Catholic schools are among 1,700 primary and secondary schools that have expressed an interest in becoming academies this September.

The list was published by the Department of Education last week in response to a Freedom of Information request by unions and anti-academy campaigners.

The list, which was divided into those schools rated “outstanding” by Ofsted and others, included 53 outstanding Catholic schools and 31 others, as well as one joint Anglican-Catholic school.

The list includes all schools which have expressed interest. Some of these schools will already have formally applied before the deadline two weeks ago.

They replied to the offer by new Education Secretary Michael Gove despite objections by the Catholic Education Service and by some dioceses.

Among those expressing interest are Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School in west London, Cardinal Newman in Coventry, St Edmund’s in Kent, Cardinal Heenan in Liverpool, Finchley High School in north London and St George’s in Westminster, the school once led by murdered headmaster Philip Lawrence.

Earlier this month the Catholic Education Service for England and Wales (CESEW) told 2,000 Catholic schools they should exercise “great caution” because so little precise detail on the funding is available. They said that land and property would be transferred to a trust and the schools could become “homeless” because dioceses and other religious Trustees, which often own the schools’ land and buildings, “are unlikely to allow the transfer of their assets”. The Church of England indicated similar reservations, but suggested dioceses would grant approval to many schools.

Last week the Birmingham archdiocese issued a statement saying that while the offer “may seem attractive” it would bring responsibilities.

The statement said: “The practice of Catholic schools working together in accordance with the policies of the Bishops’ Conference for England and Wales maintained by local authorities has been one of our great strengths. Surely one has to ask, do we really want to rush in a matter of a few weeks to dismantle what has served us well for 60 years without seriously considering the implications and all our options?”

But Michael Kelly, headmaster of the John Henry Newman School in Hertfordshire, one of the outstanding schools that has applied for academy status, said: “Governors of the school see the opportunity of academy status as one which needs to be explored carefully. Academy status appears to be an enabling one for our school community. The curricular freedom, maintenance of control of employment and admissions and the release from some of the bureaucratic burden are attractive and invigorating.

“Equally, governors are conscious of our unique status as a Catholic community and understand the permanent importance of safeguarding our distinctiveness and the assets which so many have given so generously to create.

“We are keen for the CES to resolve these issues and so enable governors to have the freedom afforded to other outstanding schools and indeed those Catholic academies which already exist and which are planned to open.”

CES director and chief executive Oona Stannard said in a statement: “It is unsurprising that Catholic schools should want to find out more about academies and expressing such an interest to the Department for Education is a non-committal way of doing this. As CESEW negotiates on the Government’s proposals for academies we are working to find the best possible outcome while holding hard to three principles: safeguarding the legal protections that enable the distinctive religious ethos and consequent success of our schools; remaining loyal to our preferential option for the poor; and building on our strengths to explore and be open to appropriate innovation.

“The Academies Bill is short on detail about the funding agreement and other processes concerned with becoming an academy, not to mention the very specific implications for Catholic schools, all of which already have their own trustees.

“Schools seeking more information from the Department for Education will then be better placed for discussion with their governing bodies and this should help the dialogue with their trustees. In order for a Catholic school to become an academy the school’s trustees will need to give their permission. CESEW are currently engaged in detailed discussions with diocesan officers representing the trustees, as well as with government officials, to explore fully the options that may be available to the Catholic sector.

“So far Ministers have shown themselves to be very keen to find ways of enabling Catholic schools to make the change to academy and we will continue these discussions with interest and openness. We have recently written to all Catholic schools inviting their views on the academies proposals and whether they would like to pursue this option if it becomes possible or remain in their current arrangements.

“This has yielded a range of views and shown that some schools that would like the option to become an academy would only pursue this reluctantly because they are anxious about either their current or future relationship with their local authority.

“The responses have also shown that many schools are very conscious of the relationship between the family of Catholic schools and are concerned that nothing be done that would compromise this. They are also mindful of their relationship with their bishop who has ecclesial responsibility for his schools and their operation in accordance with the diocesan trust deed.”