On 16th December 2015 the House of Lords considered the Government’s Education and Adoption Bill at Report Stage. Ther Bishop of Ely, Rt Revd Stephen Conway, spoke during debate on amendments to clause 7 of the Bill on the Secretary of State’s duty to make Academy orders where a school is judged to be failing. The Bishop supported the Government’s position.
The Lord Bishop of Ely: My Lords, I am very keen to support the idea of effective communication with our parents, not least about the ethos and character of schools, given that they have a deep effect. We see in the good key stage 2 results this last year the impact of character and ethos on effective academic results. Our parents are really keen to ensure that in any change of school, its ethos and character are maintained and that that is effectively communicated to them by any academy proprietor.
I had submitted my own amendment, which I have now withdrawn because I am content, following conversation with the Minister, that he agrees that ethos and character can be maintained and should be safeguarded effectively. I understand that parents around the country want, of course, to have even more say in what happens, but consider that church schools, in particular, have something significant to offer in relation not only to academic performance and ethos but future guarantees of religious literacy in the way in which our country is served.
One school deeply embedded in its community is the Saint Mary’s Church of England primary school in Moss Side in Manchester. This school was named primary school of the year in 2014, having previously been towards the bottom of the north-west league of schools. It is now in the top 2% of schools in progress in reading and 7% in maths. The judges said:
“This is a school with a determined attitude that not only achieves wonderful results for its pupils but also challenges stereotypes about its catchment and local area,”
In the service of religious literacy, we also have a school, St Luke’s primary school in Bury, where I am pleased to say that the head teacher is Jewish and the majority of the children are Muslim. Another school, St Chrysostom’s in Manchester, has an intake of about 40% Muslim students. This is to demonstrate that the Church of England is engaged in education because parishes and generations of citizens have provided land, buildings and teachers to ensure that Christian values could be shared with future generations and to give poor, disadvantaged children with no previous access to education the chance to receive that wonderful gift as a matter of right.
Church of England schools are deeply embedded in their local community, whether it is affluent or deprived. Schools such as Northern Saints in Sunderland and St Peter’s primary school in Wallsend have 49% of their students on free school meals. Both schools are doing excellent work to ensure that their children develop academically and personally. Stretton Church of England Academy, sponsored and managed by the Diocese of Coventry multi-academy trust, went from special measures to outstanding in less than three years. In the most recent Ofsted report, it was written:
“Disadvantaged pupils, disabled pupils and those who have special educational needs are making the same outstanding progress as that of their classmates”.
Our own diocesan multi-academy trust in Ely has outstanding rural schools such as St Martin at Shouldham, inclusive of a great cross-section of the community. The parents there are deeply engaged with the governors and the students themselves, proud of the school’s commitment to sustainable development and the preparation of the pupils to be responsible custodians of creation.
It is schools such as those which I have mentioned that are the norm for Church of England provision. That commitment to serving the common good and providing excellent education for all is the driving force of the Church of England’s involvement in education, and it is this ethos and vision that we, with our parents, seek to protect.
As I said, I have withdrawn my amendment on the safeguarding of the ethos of Church of England schools because the Minister has been helpful in offering us assurances that it will be protected, and because I am hopeful that amendments to come, including Amendment 20, will offer parents some confidence that in helping to improve failing or coasting schools they will not lose the values and ethos that they want from a school. The Church of England is keen that any change must always be for the benefit of the children and that it should happen in a turnaround fashion, as swiftly as possible. In support of that, I would still be grateful if the Minister could expand on the safeguards that exist to ensure that that much-valued ethos is secured, and if he will commit to ensuring that the Secretary of State will work with dioceses to ensure that those safeguards are enforced.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education (Lord Nash) (Con): [extract]…I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely for speaking in favour of my amendment on communication to parents, and I pay tribute to the great work that he does in Ely and across the country in education. Faith schools have an excellent track record on community cohesion. I attended only last week the Church of England’s Living Well Together conference, which brought together students, teachers, faith leaders and others to share ideas about how we live well together and promote peaceful coexistence. I was very impressed by what the Church of England is doing to promote these discussions within schools, and I would very much look to the church’s view on these matters and the appropriateness of our amendment on communicating with parents. I also take this opportunity to reiterate my assurances on how we will ensure the religious character of a faith school will be protected when any intervention is unnecessary, and I shall give more detail on that later on.
The Bishop then spoke later, during debate on a Government amendment on parental consultation during the academy conversion process:
The Lord Bishop of Ely: My Lords, I am keen to follow what the noble Lord, Lord True, says in commending Amendment 20. The Minister very kindly earlier on commended the Church of England on its communication through its church schools. That effective communication, as I think the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, said earlier on, is absolutely key. I know only too well that if there is fog in the pulpit, there is swirling mist everywhere else. Our communication through our church schools has to be effective because it is a key element in the building of fruitful relationships and networks of trust. Our diocesan multi-academy trusts are busy drawing church and community schools to join together and be more effective. But that is possible only through paying attention to parents and pupils in a process of effective communication, rather like what the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, earlier referred to as an effective conversation, which is an ongoing process.
I was also taken by the attention drawn by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, to the need for communication to be both determined and sensitive. If academy proprietors communicate clearly to parents that they understand the importance of the school’s character and values, a relationship of trust is already under way. I would hope that through a memorandum of understanding with the department, and in open dialogue with the RSCs, we in the church and in the wider community shall see a fruitful engagement with all stakeholders through effective communication that pays attention to building relationships at every level.
Lord Nash: [extract]…
I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely for his supportive words about our Amendment 20. As I said, the Church of England is very skilled in community cohesion, and I take great comfort from his support for our proposals for communicating with parents. I also take this opportunity to say more about my assurances about how we will ensure that the religious character of a faith school will be protected when any interventions are necessary. The Government are firmly committed to enabling schools with a religious character to protect and sustain their ethos. There are already provisions in the law that ensure that, when a school with a religious character requires intervention, the religious character will be protected. When a faith school becomes an academy, it retains its religious character by virtue of Section 6 of the Academies Act 2010. The academy’s religious character is protected through provisions within the academy’s funding agreement with the Secretary of State and the academy trust’s articles of association.
When a Church of England school joins a non-faith led trust, we intend to insert the following within the trust’s articles of association: a faith object, which requires the trust to ensure that the Church of England character of the church school is maintained; an entrenchment clause that requires written consent of the diocese for changes to articles relating to the maintenance of the church school’s religious character—for example, those relating to the local governing body of the church school and appointment of staff; a requirement that members and trustees are appointed to provide proportionate diocesan representation on the MAT; and a requirement on the MAT to establish an LGB and for the creation of a scheme of delegation relating to the religious character of the school, agreed between the MAT and the diocese. The supplemental funding agreement for the church school will include a clause requiring the establishment of a governing body with the purpose of honouring the characteristics and ethos of the school. The master funding agreement for the MAT will also include a clause to prevent the MAT amending articles relating to the church school’s governing body and the scheme of delegation. A provision within the church supplemental agreement will ensure that the MAT cannot make amendments to the articles as they relate to the governing body of the church school without diocesan consent. This will agree the best academy solutions for any failing church schools, and we are reviewing and updating the non-statutory memoranda that set out the roles of dioceses and RSCs as they relate to the academy programme, to reflect the changes in this Bill and the wider evolving policy landscape. We expect that regional schools commissioners will work closely with dioceses. We will ensure that the RSCs will comply fully with the terms of the memoranda, and we support diocesan directors of education in upholding those terms.