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HCR Law Events

11 November 2021

The relationship between the Church of England and the Department for Education

The relationship between the National Society (the Church of England’s education office) and the Department for Education is set out in the Memorandum of Understanding which applies to all Church of England schools.

The Secretary of State recognises that young people can benefit from a combination of high-quality education, religious ethos and character development provided by Church of England schools. However, as the education system evolves, it is important that the religious character of church schools and the preservation of Diocesan families of schools is not impacted.

 

Working with Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs)

To preserve religious character, Diocesan Boards of Education (DBEs) should plan for the exercise of their responsibility to church schools within their diocese, working closely with the RSCs in doing so.

RSCs are responsible for most decisions relating to academy conversion, intervention, and sponsorship, acting on behalf of the Secretary of State, and any decisions are therefore subject to the commitments given in the memorandum.

The relationship between RSCs and DBEs relies on consistency and transparency, with the memorandum acting as a guide in fulfilling that commitment. There is an expectation that RSCs, Head Teacher Boards, Department for Education officials, and academy brokers will not start discussions with a Church of England school or academy in respect of the following issues, without prior discussion and continuing engagement with the DBE:

  • academy conversions
  • concerns over standards
  • movement into a multi-academy trust (MAT) or transfer from one MAT to another

 

Academy conversions

The memorandum sets out expectations relating to Church of England school conversion to academy status, giving oversight to DBEs. Although consent to convert will only be withheld in exceptional circumstances, the DBE may prevent conversion where the church school cannot operate as a stand-alone academy and there is no suitable MAT, or there are concerns about the school sustaining its religious character.

If the school joins a MAT, the hope is that the level of church governance will not be diluted. However, if the MAT does not have appropriate church governance, in recognition of the importance of the Diocesan family of schools, the application will only be approved if it is supported by the DBE and the arrangement will safeguard the religious character and ethos of the school.

 

Governance arrangements

The expectation is that the MAT model will be the principal model used by all academies. However, any single academy trust or MAT may establish its own collaborative arrangements, so long as the Secretary of State’s relationship and accountability continues.

Where a merger of MATs that include church schools is proposed, the governance and form of the resulting MAT should be formulated with the involvement of the National Society and relevant Department for Education policy leads.

 

Sponsorship

The memorandum also sets out expectations in respect of church schools becoming sponsors, giving oversight to DBEs to sustain the Diocesan family of schools. Where a church school expresses an interest in becoming a sponsor, DBE support and consent must be given, and the application must confirm:

  • the school’s commitment to helping underperforming schools
  • that the MAT will be set up in accordance with the Church of England model articles and a Members’ Agreement.

 

Intervention

Maintained church schools

In accordance with the memorandum, on receipt of an inadequate judgement relating to a maintained church school, the RSC will contact the DBE before any discussions with possible sponsors and seek to discuss who should sponsor the school. A Diocesan or strong church school-led MAT is the expected outcome in most cases.

However, where the DBE and any local church school cannot sponsor the school, the RSC may consider an existing MAT that does not currently have appropriate church governance. If this is necessary, the DBE will be involved and the sponsor’s arrangements must safeguard the religious character of the school.

Church academies

Where an underperforming church academy requires urgent remedial action, the memorandum again confirms that the DBE will be engaged as early as possible. The expected outcome will be a Diocesan or strong church school-led MAT to take on the school. If that is not possible, the RSC will involve the DBE to consider a sponsor of non-church schools, ensuring that the arrangements of the sponsor will safeguard the religious character and ethos of the school.

DBE request for intervention

In some cases, the DBE may have concerns about a school’s performance. If the school or the local authority lacks capacity or intent to act, the DBE should inform the RSC. The memorandum requires the RSC to take seriously and act quickly on such concerns, considering the views of the DBE.

 

Practical steps

While it is hoped that the RSC and DBE will always be able to work together collaboratively, there may be instances where a way forward cannot be agreed. Where this is the case, the RSC and DBE will be expected to contact the National Society to facilitate further discussions to find a solution.

Diocesan Boards of Education and school leaders in church schools should consider the memorandum to ensure that all necessary steps are taken to maintain the relationship between the Secretary of State and the National Society, in order that the religious character and ethos of church schools can be protected.

With the continuing support from the Government for maintained schools to convert to academy status, maintained church schools may consider whether academy conversion would now be appropriate for the school, and should ensure that any MAT they join preserves the religious character of the school.

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About the Author
Emma Swann, Partner, Head of Academies

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