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Government threatened with legal action over Catholic academy power-grab

UPDATE 16th February: following legal challenge, the Department for Education has reportedly paused the Diocese of Hallam’s bid for 19 schools to become Catholic academies. Nevertheless, the Diocese says it still plans to pursue its plans by Easter. Original article follows.

A group of education unions is threatening to take legal action against the UK Government unless it withdraws 19 academy orders issued to Catholic schools. The orders were issued at the request of the Hallam Diocese, when it is the schools that are meant to be able to decide this. Humanists UK leads the national campaign for schools that are inclusive of all children regardless of religion or belief. It has expressed alarm at the plans. If forced academisation goes ahead, ‘the Diocese will have considerably more power over these schools than it does at present’, it said.

Academies are state-funded schools that are independent from the local authority and receive their funding directly from the central Government. They control their own admissions policies and, because they are not bound by the National Curriculum, have greater freedom over what they teach. Academies are run by academy trusts which may run just one school or a number of schools (these are known as multi-academy trusts, or MATs).

If Hallam Diocese’s plan is successful, 19 schools (which are located in South Yorkshire, Derbyshire, and Nottinghamshire) will become academies and join one of two new MATs to be run by the Diocese. Like other religious schools, faith-based academies can select pupils and teachers by faith, and teach religious education (RE) and relationships and sex education (RSE) from a faith perspective. Humanists UK doesn’t have a policy on academies per se, as the question is outside of its remit. But moving faith schools to a faith-based MAT often leads to stronger religious influence as rules about the composition of trusts mean less governance by stakeholders with an investment in individual schools (like parents and teachers) than in other types of school. Dioceses also have more direct control over what is taught. Last year the Government announced £2 million in funding to increase the number of faith academies in England.

Usually, schools can only be forced to become academies if they are rated inadequate by Ofsted or are otherwise considered to be failing. Schools can also convert to academy status if this is requested by the school’s governing body. However, according to the unions, the head teachers and governors of the schools involved in this case do not want to alter their status and none of the schools are failing academically. Indeed, in a letter to the Secretary of State for Education Nadhim Zahawi, the unions state that the academy orders appear to have been made solely ‘on the application of and/or at the behest of the diocese’.

Alarmingly, forced academisation into religious MATs is not just a problem for faith schools. Many schools without a religious character have also been taken over by faith-run MATs. This is not supposed to affect their overarching community character, but in practice, it often means a greater emphasis on one faith perspective (usually Christianity), particularly in RE and collective worship – which may go from unenforced to enforced. For example, in 2019 Humanists UK supported two non-religious parents to take a successful legal challenge against their children’s school when it refused to offer them a meaningful, inclusive alternative to confessional Christian worship. In that case, the school in question was not a faith school but was operated by a CofE trust.

Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Robert Cann commented:

‘Should this plan go ahead, the Catholic Church – which already has a disproportionate amount of control over the state-funded education system – will be gifted considerably more power over these schools than at present.

‘Although we do not take a position on whether schools should be academies or not, it is clear that more faith-based MATs mean more religious influence in schools. Given that more than half of the population now identifies as non-religious, this cannot be appropriate and should be strongly resisted. Instead, the Government should be focusing on increasing the number of inclusive schools that are open and suitable to all children irrespective of religion or belief.’

Notes:

For further comment or information, contact Humanists UK Education Policy Researcher Dr Ruth Wareham at ruth@humanists.uk or phone 020 7324 3000 or 07725 110 860.

Read our most recent article on Faith-based admissions being abolished in 35 Suffolk schools.

Read our article on Government announcing more than £2 million in funding enabling religious take-over of yet more schools.

Read more about our work on faith schools.

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by 100,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.

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