Education and Adoption Bill

Written evidence submitted by a group of Church of England diocesan boards of education (EAB 21)

Summary

This evidence is being submitted jointly by the Boards of Education of the Church of England dioceses of Liverpool, West Yorkshire and the Dales, Chester, Leicester, Bath and Wells, Blackburn, Rochester, Ely, Hereford, Lincoln, Exeter, Oxford, Coventry, Chichester, Sheffield, Durham, Newcastle, Birmingham, Gloucester, Southwark, Bristol, Lichfield, St Alban's, Norwich, Chelmsford, Carlisle and Canterbury. It is also supported by the Association of Anglican Directors of Education.(AADE)

It has been drafted in support of the submissions already publicly available from the National Society and the Catholic Education Service.

The dioceses seek changes to the Bill that protect the religious character of their schools in these processes, and the charitable nature of the institutions and of their site trustees.

The Diocesan Boards of Education

1. Diocesan Boards of Education (DBEs) are the diocesan bodies with statutory responsibility under the Diocesan Boards of Education Measure 1991 for Church of England Schools in their area. The DBEs represented here are simply a group of Church of England dioceses that have chosen to provide evidence together. Between them they are the religious authorities (and in many cases the trustees) for the majority of Church of England maintained schools and academies. The AADE represents all Church of England Diocesan Directors of Education who are between them responsible for over four and a half thousand schools and academies. They therefore comment from the perspective of everyday practitioners who are constantly involved in the running of their schools and have various statutory responsibilities for them. Their collaboration is at the heart of all procedures addressing the standards of their schools and of all relevant academy conversions. They hope therefore that their observations will be of material assistance to the Committee in considering how the legislation as proposed in the Bill will work in practice.

Concerns

2. The DBEs have responsibilities both in respect of the educational standards of their schools and with regard to their Church of England religious character. In both of these they work in partnership with other interested bodies such as Local Authorities (for maintained schools), the DfE and EFA, the relevant site trustees (which may be the Vicar and Churchwardens) and, of course, the schools themselves. In order for these partnerships to work effectively and efficiently, it is necessary for there to be a clear and unambiguous legal framework within which the network of well established relationships and professional practices can continue. Where the legal framework is flawed or of uncertain effect then constant problems occur and much time and money is wasted. Our comments below are intended to assist in producing clear effective legislation that will assist our twin aims of high quality education in the context of a strong church ethos. Our experience is that in our schools the two tend to be found together.

3. In our view it is entirely right that the providers of schools and academies should be called to account for the standards of their schools. This has been the thrust of legislation since the creation of grant maintained schools. However, there is a delicate point at which being called to account tips over into being controlled, and we urge the Committee to consider with care the dividing line between the two, especially in the light of the inevitably limited capacity of the DfE and EFA in these times of financial stringency. That it seems to be envisaged that the Secretary of State's new powers will be largely exercised by Regional Commissioners raises additional concerns about capacity and comparability of decision-making.

4. A further very significant point is that when control results in decisions that affect the continuance and effectiveness of the religious character of our schools and of the trusts on which they are held, then we suggest that education legislation is in danger of affecting the charitable status and character of our schools and their trusts. This seems to us to need very careful consideration, and we ask the Committee to seek assurances from the Secretary of State that Charity Commission advice has been taken on this point, and to make it public. The Bill appears to be capable of being used to remove or reduce the effectiveness of the religious character of our schools and to affect quite radically their charitable nature and character. This may not be intended, but clarity on the face of the Bill is required to ensure that provisions are not such that they could be used in this way.

5. There is also a related point concerning the necessary independence of charitable institutions, as are all academies and voluntary and foundation schools, together with any site trustees they may have. We wonder whether the levels of control and direction that would accumulate in the hands of the Secretary of State were the Bill to be enacted as drafted would not compromise the independence of these school charities beyond what it is reasonable to impose on charitable bodies. After all, to be an executive arm of the EFA is not a charitable purpose! Again we urge that Charity Commission advice be sought and brought to the Committee.

6. These may seem rather abstract points, but in fact they are intensely practical in the day to day operation of standards and academy conversions processes and touch on a number of drafting points in the Bill:

(a) We strongly believe that the statutory duties and responsibilities of religious authorities and site trustees should be recognised on the face of the Bill by something more than a right to be consulted. This applies both to clauses 2-6 and to the radical changes to present legislation included in clauses 7-12.

(b) The definition of "coasting schools" is being covered by Regulations which we have only today seen in draft. We are grateful for this but note that this represents a very major extension of Secretary of State powers over schools that might well be doing a perfectly good job. While to challenge them is in our view right we urge that this should not be by means of a mechanism which would allow the Secretary of State to press for the transfer of such schools with a religious character to the management of non-religious bodies.

(c) Dioceses and Local Authorities are used to working together to address standards issues and we support the view put forward by others that in order that ethos and trust issues can be harnessed in support of improving standards, real diocesan involvement in the creation of Interim Executive Boards (whether established by Local Authorities or by the Secretary of State) is essential.

(d) We support too the call by both the National Society and the Catholic Education Service for the powers contained within clauses 2,4,5 and 6 to be exercised in constant collaboration with the relevant religious body since they will no doubt (and rightly in our view) come to be more frequently used. Hence both site trustees and religious authorities need to be consulted in respect of all the options proposed in these clauses and we would like to see a requirement in the Bill that arrangements about the governance of a school must always be such as to take into account any religious character that a school has by virtue of its trust deeds or otherwise. To have such a requirement on the face of the Bill is in our view essential to ensure the smooth and efficient working of the various processes. Arguments cost money and create delays!

(e) Clause 7 appears to us to take us immediately to some serious practical problems. In combination with clause 1 it leads to a situation where a substantial number of schools (and consequently some Church of England schools) will be in receipt of academy orders (whether under the new proposed s4(A1) or under the existing s4(1)(b) of the Academies Act) which have not been sought by the governing body. We do not believe that any Church of England school has yet been converted under s4(1)(b) and that consequently this route has never been tested in practice. In the case of voluntary conversions, section 3(4) of the Academies Act provides that a governing body may apply for Academy status only with the consent of the trustees of the school and the persons by whom the foundation governors are appointed. Under the proposed powers the current practical arrangement of using a letter of conditional consent which enables us and our site trustees to ensure that academy conversions take place with full protection for the religious character of the institution and the requirements of the site trust deeds will not obtain. Mere consultation is not a sufficient replacement for this and we fear that many conversions will be held up because we have to find other ways of ensuring that appropriate company articles are used, appropriate company members and directors prescribed and all appropriate powers included in both the articles and the relevant funding agreements. If the present straightforward power we have to ensure all of this is removed for these groups of conversions (as would be the case with present drafting) then we fear that the practical effects on the ground will be to create disruption, resentment and extra cost. Some way of requiring our continued agreement (not just a right to be consulted) is in practice essential.

(f) In part this is because the site trustees must protect and respect their trusts and cannot be directed to do any other. It is our view also that the same applies to the governors of religious voluntary schools in their charitable capacity. They have a duty to protect the Church of England character of their schools and may not be directed not to do so. If we as the religious authorities are not enabled to ensure that conversions happen only with conditions to guarantee the religious character of the school, not only dioceses but the site trustees (who in the Church of England may be small groups of local folk) will be put in an unbearable position. Yet in the end no conversion can happen without them making their site available – which they cannot do in breach of their trust. Risking this kind of situation seems not to make sense.

(g) The combination of clauses 1 and 7-12 also results in the odd position that a good or outstanding school seeking conversion with an inappropriate partner could be prevented from doing so by the diocese, while a weak or coasting school could be taken into a totally inappropriate Multi Academy Trust without the diocese being able to prevent this. This will put us all in some most invidious positions locally as we attempt to work with Regional Schools Commissioners to broker effective solutions.

Conclusions

7. As a group of dioceses we are not at all opposed to the declared aims of this Bill. However, as a sample of the bodies and individuals who will have to make it work on the ground we are concerned to have:

(a) a clear, justified and long term definition of "coasting schools";

(b) clear provisions on the face of the Bill to require our active involvement and that of site trustees in the various processes set out in clauses 2-6;

(c) a requirement in the Bill that all these processes recognise and support the religious character of our schools; and

(d) an amendment to ensure that the processes of the new proposed s 4(A1) and the existing s 4(1)(b) of the Academies Act cannot go forward without the consent of the religious authority and the site trustees.

8. It is our view that without these changes major practical problems will in fact occur in respect of individual conversions and other procedures and will have to be solved at substantial local cost both financial and in relationship terms.

9. We share the Secretary of State’s determination to improve the life chances of children and young people and believe that if our suggestions are implemented, the aims of the Education Bill will be expedited more effectively.

Signed:

The Diocesan Directors of Education of the dioceses of Liverpool, West Yorkshire and the Dales, Chester, Leicester, Bath and Wells, Blackburn, Rochester, Ely, Hereford, Lincoln, Exeter, Oxford, Coventry, Chichester, Sheffield, Durham, Newcastle, Birmingham, Gloucester, Southwark, Bristol, Lichfield, St Alban's, Norwich, Chelmsford, Carlisle and Canterbury: and the Association of Anglican Directors of Education

July 2015

Prepared 9th July 2015