The Bishop of Chichester speaks in a debate on the Schools Bill (HL)

On 15th June 2022, the House of Lords debated the Schools Bill (HL) in committee. The Bishop of Chichester spoke in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of Chichester: 59: Clause 29, page 23, line 23, leave out “of its maintained schools” and insert “maintained schools in its area

Member’s explanatory statement: This amendment makes the language in this section consistent with language used elsewhere in legislation relating to maintained schools in a church context.

My Lords, I rise to speak on behalf of my colleague, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, who regrets that he cannot be here to move the amendments in this group tabled in his name. I declare his interest as chair of the National Society.

Firstly, I shall say a brief word about Amendment 59, which is a small effort to ensure consistency of language used throughout the legislation relating to maintained schools in a church context. The particular amended line in Clause 23 removes the wording that assumes control of all maintained schools and replaces it with language that is applicable in a church context.

On Amendment 64, diocesan boards of education, as set out by Section 8 of the DBE Measure, exist to promote and assist the provision of religious education in church and other schools throughout the diocese. However, they also co-operate with other educational providers in their dioceses and play a vital role. In the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham’s own diocese, around 50% of schools are academies. Across the Church of England as a whole, it is about a third of our schools, including secondary schools, and this is growing all the time—working in a range of different kinds of multi-academy trusts. There is a strong and growing diocesan trust in Durham, serving the needs of all the community it serves, working in strong partnership with a range of school-led MATs across the north-east. The joint diocesan board of education for Durham and Newcastle has been crucial to the success in the diocese and has contributed much to serving the whole community.

Amendment 64 requires the consent of the relevant diocesan board of education before seeking an academy order on a school for which it is the religious authority. Consultation with the diocesan boards of education before seeking an academy order is an important step to retain the cohesion that they already help to promote, and to ensure that the governance of schools with a religious character is maintained by the religious authority. DBEs will also be increasingly important as the education system nationalises, which is evident in this Chamber as we discuss questions of adequate funding for rural schools and other issues for which more local insight is invaluable.

Amendment 65 and the consequential Amendments 66, 67, 71, 72, 73 and 74 are intended to reflect the position of the churches as partners in state education. Amendment 65 inserts proposed new Section 3B, which mirrors the power of local authorities in new Section 3A and applies the power to submit applications for an academy order to the religious authority for church schools. The drafting also reflects the expectations of each religious authority before applying the power and accounts for schools with a religious character that do not have a religious authority. This would enable the religious authority, or appropriate religious body, to apply for an academy order in respect of its schools, in line with a strategic plan to enable a fully trust-led system.

This is important because the churches and other religious authorities have a strategic role in the development of the educational landscape. The move towards all schools being in a strong academy trust is not something that can be allowed to happen in an ad hoc or piecemeal way but requires strategic planning and the development of a system that works for all schools concerned. It requires the religious authority to be able to propose strategic change to ensure that none of its schools is isolated or left behind. This will be particularly important as we consider the large number of small schools, often in isolated rural communities, many of which, as we have already heard in previous discussions, are church schools.

We need to ensure that the religious authority has the ability to seek change for the good of the whole family of schools, not simply on an individual school basis. The Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church provide one-third of state schools in England. One reason I believe these are schools that are often sought after by parents is that we have been on the block a long time—more than 200 years—seeking to provide free education for the children of this land. It is essential that those authorities have the same power as outlined for the local authorities, to ensure that they have the ability to function as a strategic partner with the state in this way. I beg to move.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Lab): My Lords, I support the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham’s amendments, so ably spoken to by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester. I do not have an awful lot of experience of academies; we do not have them in Wales. I suppose we are a bit old-fashioned, but the system seems to work quite well. However, I have nothing against them. They were introduced by the Government of which I used to be a member and I wish them well.

It is particularly important that church and state schools should have the same opportunities as academies. There is no reason in this wide world why a Church of England school or a Roman Catholic school—I am a Catholic—should not have the same opportunities as a state school. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester rightly referred to the fact that, in England, one in three schools is a church school. Ten per cent of all schools in England are Catholic schools, and 850,000 pupils go to them. Both Church of England and Catholic schools do a tremendous job in very deprived areas all over England—and, indeed, although it does not apply in this debate, in Wales.

There is a very strong case for ensuring that church schools have equal status in the Bill; handbooks and various bits of guidance from the Department for Education are okay, but they are not enough. If there is to be proper equality between church schools and state schools, that has to be recognised in law. Those issues revolve around governance structures, appointments, religious education and collective worship. I know that the Catholic authorities, all dioceses in England and the Catholic Education Service warmly support the amendments spoken to by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester, as I do. I wish them well.

Baroness Champman of Darlington (Lab): I should perhaps declare an interest on the amendments moved by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester on behalf of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, given that my children attend academy schools in the area of that diocese.

We would like to put on record our appreciation for the contribution of the Church of England to education in the country. I think it was very well put that there needs to be a strategic approach. The amendments tabled by the right reverend prelate the Bishop of Durham would better able that to happen, so we are sympathetic to the case that was made.

We were already minded to support Amendment 60, and my noble friend Lady Morris made the case better than I could. The issues highlighted prove that the Bill would have benefitted from some pre-legislative scrutiny.

I was particularly pleased to hear comments about fair access and admissions. Should we be forming a government any time soon, we would probably want to explore that and push it still further.

Baroness Penn (Con): My Lords, I will start by responding to Amendments 59, 64 to 67, and 71 to 74 in the name of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester for moving these amendments on his behalf.

I acknowledge the very important role played by churches and other religious bodies in state education. As the right reverend Prelate has said, these amendments relate to powers to support schools to join multi-academy trusts, helping to fulfil the Government’s ambition to have all schools in or joining a strong trust by 2030. I welcome the right reverend Prelate’s support for that ambition. I understand that, as he said, the purpose of Amendment 59 is to make the language used in Clause 29 consistent with other legislation relating to maintained schools in a church context. However, the existing wording of the clause already captures these particular schools and so this amendment would have no material effect.

Amendment 64 relates to requirements for local authorities to obtain consents before applying for an academy order on behalf of a school with a foundation. The Government understand the desire for the appropriate diocesan authority, as the religious body for a church school, to be among the bodies whose consent is required for an application. However, as drafted, the amendment captures only the diocesan authorities and not religious bodies for other faiths, and the position should be fair for all religious bodies.

The remaining amendments tabled by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham seek to enable certain religious bodies to apply to the Secretary of State for academy orders in relation to schools for which they are responsible. As I have said, the Government want schools with a religious character to enjoy, like all others, the benefits of being part of a strong academy trust. The Government are sympathetic to the principle of these amendments but further consideration is needed to establish the scope of the religious bodies that could apply for an academy order and the types of maintained school to which it should apply. As drafted, the amendment may not adequately capture all the religious bodies involved in maintained schools with a religious character. It may also inadvertently include bodies which are responsible for schools without a religious character.

The Lord Bishop of Chichester: My Lords, the amendment in the name of the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, has produced far more energy. I have to say, what I think is shared here is a concern that what happens in our schools is not done in a piecemeal, ad hoc way but intentionally. So it is not just about the intention of the powers that are brought but about what their effect will be. Of course, finding that you are alone is a dangerous place to be in a powerful, fast-moving organisational circumstance.

I am grateful to the Minister for her assurance that she is sympathetic to and understands the Church’s concerns over church schools. The need for a wider scope for what we had drafted in this amendment will be considered. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment in the name of my right reverend friend the Bishop of Durham.

Amendment 59 withdrawn.

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