New tasks for the new Secretary of State

AS Kit Malthouse becomes the fifth person to take up the office of Secretary of State for Education in the past 12 months, there is no doubt that he arrives at a time of significant challenge.

The Government’s overall aspiration for education is already set out in the White Paper Opportunity For All, with an emphasis on great teachers, strong trusts, and fairer funding. But the context has changed dramatically, and the increasing demand on school budgets caused by escalating energy costs and other inflationary pressures is about to bite hard.

The Church of England, with 4650 schools serving more than one million children, is the largest education provider in the country. Our vision to be deeply Christian serving the common good seeks to see every child flourish. By this, we mean experiencing life in its fullness, building skills developing beyond just excellent exam results. We want to see our schools continue to excel, not simply in their own right, but to continue to provide the kind of rounded education that parents value so much.

The past couple of years have been challenging for schools. Swiftly on the heels of the pandemic followed a crisis of mental health and well-being, as school leaders reported the impact which disruption had had on children’s development. Responding, we have developed a national network for school leaders focused on issues of children’s mental health.

Now, without significant extra resources, the education system will be unable to cope. The Government’s strategy cannot be achieved if academy trusts do not have confidence about the level of funding available to provide quality education in schools. So, at the top of the new Secretary of State’s to-do list needs to be a commitment to securing the additional funding necessary to see through the developments set out in the White Paper.

SO, WHAT does the new legislation mean for C of E schools, and how are we playing our part in shaping the future of education?

The direction of travel set out is for all schools to join a strong multi-academy trust by 2030. Most importantly, we are working to ensure that, for church schools, the definition of “strong” includes the trust’s effectiveness in delivering education with a clear Christian vision.

Currently, one third of Church of England schools are academies. In order for the remaining two-thirds to be supported to embrace the change, we have sought assurances of sufficient statutory safeguards to secure the religious character of our schools for the future.

Academies have evolved within a contractual framework between the Secretary of State and each individual academy trust through a funding agreement. That system was designed with the expectation that there would only be a couple of hundred academies in total. But in a fully trust-based system, more than 20,000 schools will eventually be academies, so individual contracts will become too unwieldy. One of the aims of the current Schools Bill is therefore to bring a firmer statutory basis and greater regulation to the system.

Following widespread resistance to this move, the first 18 clauses of the Bill have been withdrawn in the Lords to allow further work. They will come back in its next iteration in a way which will ensure the scope of those regulations is more narrowly defined, along with a duty to consult.

Our experience with the DfE throughout the passage of the Bill has been positive. They have clarified and amended the Bill based on our suggestions and are committed to regulations that ensure the governance arrangements for Church of England academies, the provision of religious education and collective worship, and the statutory role of the Diocesan Board of Education as the appropriate religious authority for Church of England schools are all safeguarded for the future.

We have welcomed this, as it gives our schools greater confidence that their Christian character can be safeguarded into the future, removing barriers for church schools to become academies.

On this basis, we are encouraging all church schools to embrace the development of strong diocesan and church-school-led academy trusts. We hope that Mr. Malthouse will ensure that this work is completed to give us clarity and confidence about the future.

WE HAVE heard some concerns about the status of the land on which church schools are provided. Historically, church-school site trustees in the maintained sector have had their charitable interest in school sites protected through a process of statutory transfer when, for example, a school moves site or extends its footprint on to local authority provided land.

The Bill ensures that, when academies with a historical foundation relocate to a new site, the educational endowment on which the school is established is safeguarded. Unlike other maintained provisions relating to the expansion of existing sites, or where land is publicly funded, however, this will not be transferred and will continue to be accounted for elsewhere within the academies framework.

Before church schools convert to academy status it has always been, and remains, vitally important that any outstanding land transfers are dealt with, and all details relating to land are clearly understood and documented. Nothing in this changes the position for maintained schools, as the clause only applies to schools that are already academies.

THE history of the National Society is one of continuous negotiation with the government. When local education authorities were created in the 1940s, the National Society ensured that Diocesan Boards of Education were established to enable engagement and partnership.

As the system reconfigures beyond 2030, local authorities will no longer be maintaining schools in the same way, and the new landscape will be one where multi-academy trusts (MATs) are the primary unit through which education is delivered. Dioceses need to keep working to find new ways to work in partnership with them.

MATs will increasingly grow beyond local or diocesan boundaries; so dioceses will need to collaborate and work wisely in partnership across a region.

The next few years will be vitally important for the Church’s provision of education. We cannot expect the system to wait or be held back by our structures and boundaries, and will only be able to secure the future of Church schools as we are willing to adapt continuously, as we have always done, to shape our response to this new reality.

The Rt Revd Paul Butler is the Bishop of Durham and the Church of England’s lead bishop for education.

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