A GROUP OF teaching unions has this week written to the UK Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi, urging him to confirm that a directive issued to all Catholic voluntary aided schools in the Diocese of Hallam to join a multi-academy trust has no legal effect.

The schools, in the north of England, were notified they would need to join a multi-academy trust by letter from their Regional Schools Commissioner in December 2021.

However, in their letter to the Education Secretary, the teaching unions observe that the only way that schools can be forced to become an academy is if they are deemed inadequate by Ofsted, or otherwise through an application of the school’s governing body, which has not occurred in these school’s cases.

In their letter the unions add that “the Academy Orders appear to have been made on the application of and/or at the behest of the Diocese. The Secretary of State is invited to confirm in writing that the Academy Orders are void and of no effect”.

The instruction from the Regional Schools Commissioner to become an academy follows a plan by the Diocese of Hallam to require its state funded schools, including those that are part of existing academy trusts, to join one of two newly formed Catholic multi academy trusts.

Last April, the former Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, revealed UK Government plans to provide financial support for the creation of more Church of England and Catholic multi academy trusts so that more local authority maintained church schools become academies.

Chair of the Accord Coalition for inclusive education, Simon Barrow, said: ‘”Too often power and control over state funded faith schools is placed ahead of good governance or ensuring that, in our increasingly diverse society, they adhere to religiously inclusive practices. The growth of faith-based academy chains, meanwhile, enables sponsors of state-funded faith schools to have even more control over schools.

‘”It is therefore concerning, though perhaps not surprising, that a Diocese has been implicated in a coercive and unsightly power grab. We urge it to consider how it can better respect the rights of others and, not just of its own school governors, but especially those of staff, pupils, and families who hold different opinions about religion or belief.”

In their letter to the Education Secretary, the unions state: “We understand that the governing bodies of these schools have not applied to the Secretary of State for academy orders. The Academy Orders appear to have been made on the application of and/or at the behest of the Diocese.

“The Secretary of State is invited to confirm in writing that the Academy Orders are void and of no effect, and to notify the Diocese, the Schools and the local authorities responsible for maintaining the Schools that the Academy Orders are void and of no legal effect.”

Paul Whiteman, General Secretary of the school leaders’ union NAHT, added: “To realise an ambition to have more schools in Multi-Academy Trusts, the Secretary of State and the Diocese must present a compelling case to schools. That is very different from a case of compulsion.

“Becoming an academy can be a positive step for some schools. But it is only the governing body and leaders of a school that can truly understand if joining a Multi-Academy Trust will bring benefit to pupils. The Education Secretary has said that he supports a system with a variety of different school types. This must be upheld for all schools in the Diocese of Hallam.

“Actions that lack transparency and have been viewed as underhand will fail to win the hearts and minds of educators who truly do have the interests of the young people in their care at the forefront of their deliberations. When the legislation and processes that exist to ensure reasonable treatment are ignored or abused, unions have no choice but to challenge those actions through the courts.”

Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “We are deeply concerned by what appears to be an abuse of the process of schools becoming academies. It is perfectly clear that the decision must come from governing bodies and yet this appears to have been flagrantly ignored. Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi must intervene and put a stop to this sorry episode.”

Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said: “Becoming an academy and joining a large Multi-Academy Trust is a one-way street. It is essential that governors and school leaders make these decisions and include the staff and wider school community in the discussion. These decisions are too important to be imposed on schools by the Diocese.”

UNISON head of education, Mike Short, said: “Trying to force through mass changes to academies is not only wrong-headed, it’s a complete distraction at a time like this. School staff have been working wonders to keep schools open throughout the pandemic and are continuing to do so despite dangerously high Covid rates. These dedicated employees can well do without this extra stress after putting their own health, and that of their families, at risk for the past two years.”

* The Accord Coalition was launched in 2008 and brings together religious and non-religious organisations who want state funded schools to be made open and suitable to all, regardless of people or their family’s religious or non-religious beliefs. It campaigns to end religious discrimination in school staffing and admissions, and for all state funded schools to provide PSHE, assemblies and Religious Education, that boost mutual understanding between those of different beliefs and backgrounds. Ekklesia is a member and co-founder of the Coalition, and its director, Simon Barrow, is the new chair of Accord.

* Sources: Accord Coalition, National Education Union