On 23rd May 2022, the House of Lords debated the Schools Bill (2022) in its second reading. The Bishop of Oxford spoke in the debate in regards to faith schools and rural schools. The Bill was read through and committed to a committee of the whole house:
The Lord Bishop of Oxford: My Lords, there is much to welcome in the new Bill, as my colleague the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham and other noble Lords have indicated. In particular, it is good to know the Government’s direction of travel on academisation and the continued emphasis on raising standards. I support the comments made by other noble Lords on the need properly to resource our schools, particularly in the aftermath of the pandemic, to safeguard the morale of heads, governors and teachers and to pay much greater attention to mental health provision.
It is vital as well to continue to build on secure partnerships across the statutory, voluntary, church and faiths sector. The education of our children has never been the sole responsibility of central government—it is the responsibility of all. These vital partnerships have flourished for many decades to the mutual benefit of all and the common good. It is very good to note the Government’s intention to safeguard those partnerships into the future through the Bill and the process of academisation which will follow. One of the tests of the Bill will be the strengthening of social capital and intermediate institutions.
The Diocese of Oxford where I serve has 284 Church schools and shares in the education of over 50,000 children. We have sponsored and developed two highly effective multi-academy trusts of our own, and we are active partners in a further 18 MATs across the three counties. Over the last decade, our role in education has steadily expanded, and we stand ready to play our part in the academisation programme over the next decade. Some of our schools are large, but many serve small rural communities and are cherished as a vital part of the educational provision across the three counties.
There will be particular challenges in the pace of academisation, which will be needed to meet the Government’s targets, and I very much hope that the Minister will be able to give assurances in her closing remarks about the vital importance of small rural schools to their communities and about the proper resourcing of what will be very significant and rapid change for them. It would be helpful to have greater clarity on what will govern or limit the size of MATs in future. Will it be the number of schools, which may each be small, or the numbers of pupils cumulatively?
I have found in discussion with our senior school leaders that there is some ambiguity in the Bill around Clauses 19 and 20, and the requirements to make regulation about governance. We note the Government’s assurance to protect governance in MATs, where the majority of schools were formerly church schools of any type, whether VA or VC. However, Clauses 19 and 20 can be read as making a distinction between VA and VC schools and as giving assurance of majority church governance only in those MATs where more than 50% of schools are VA. It would be helpful to have the Minister’s assurance of intention here and an undertaking to clarify this point in Committee.
Finally, the Bill makes provision for local authorities to apply for academy trust orders for all their schools. May I ask the Minister for guidance on the ways in which the Department for Education will ensure that there are no perceived or actual conflicts of interest or preferment between these local authorities spin-off MATs and other multi-academy trusts?
Extracts from the speeches that followed:
Baroness Barran (Con, Parliamentary Under-secretary – Department for Education): The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford asked specifically about our consideration for small, rural schools. It is an issue of which we are acutely aware and I am very happy again to pick that up in more detail with him if that would be helpful. (…)
(…) As ever, we are preparing an increasingly long letter, and I know I have not done justice to all the points raised. In closing, I know that the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, talked about his amendment on fundamental British values, and I am looking forward to meeting tomorrow to discuss that further. Similarly, I will follow up on my noble friend Lady Berridge’s points on data regarding children on free school meals and with special educational needs, and with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford on clarifying points around governance and conflicts of interests for local authorities when they have their own MATs. I will also follow up with my noble friend Lord Lexden in relation to the fit and proper persons test, and with the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, on adoption from abroad.