Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill: Bishop of Chelmsford advocates for ensured premises for faith schools

On 22nd May 2023, the House of Lords debated the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill in committee. The Bishop of Chelmsford spoke in the debate, in support of a government amendment to the bill that would require local authorities to transfer school premises to charitable trusts in charge of academies, establishing parity with local authority maintained schools:

The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford: My Lords, following the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, I rise to speak in favour of government Amendment 467F and at the outset say that my right reverend friend the Bishop of Durham, who leads for the Church of England on education, very much regrets that he cannot be in his place.

We are grateful to the Department for Education and the department for levelling up for working together and with us in the Church to fulfil the Government’s commitment to bringing forward legislation to safeguard statutory protections relating to issues arising from the occupation of land by Church academies. The decision not to progress the Schools Bill might have meant that this uncontroversial but important change to legislation would have been lost, so it is very good to have the amendment in this Bill, which will maintain the important legacy of educational endowments that provide land for the purposes of a school with a religious character. This is important for all schools with a religious character, not just Church of England schools, and it will remove a significant barrier on the journey to academisation for Church schools, which is vital in the Government’s policy aims, as such schools make up one-third of the entire school sector and seek to serve local communities up and down the country.

As boards of education implement their strategies for the development of the family of Church schools in each diocese, they need to have confidence to do so in a way that ensures the security of that provision for the future. That still requires further work on governance arrangements which we are developing in partnership with the DfE through the use of the Church model articles, but it also requires legislation with regard to the way land is held on separate charitable trusts for use by academy companies. This amendment provides that legislation and captures clearly the issue as described in the fact sheet that accompanied the now withdrawn Schools Bill.

We therefore welcome this amendment to preserve trustees’ existing land interests once schools whose sites are held on educational endowments become academies. This amendment is a vital step towards ensuring that school sites continue to be used for original charitable purposes, enabling schools with a religious character to engage with the changing educational landscape. It will give greater certainty to the sector, the Catholic Education Service, the Church of England Education Office and our dioceses that together serve nearly 2 million children today and are at the heart of communities across our villages, towns and cities. It ensures that the distinctive Christian ethos of Church schools will be protected in the long term by reassuring the sector that on conversion to an academy, the nature and purpose of the trust deed of the school site will continue to be preserved if the academy needs to relocate. We therefore wholeheartedly support this amendment.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Baroness Pinnock (LD): I want to focus my comments on Amendment 467F. It is a good job I am speaking after the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford, because it was not at all clear to me that that is what it is about. That is the problem with this group of government amendments; as I said earlier, a miscellany of issues has been put together because this is a levelling-up Bill and we can throw anything in. My guess was that it came from the Schools Bill, but reading the amendment without any explanation, it was not clear at all, so I have a few questions to put to the Minister.

First, can she assure us that the comments of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford are accurate and this is entirely about schools with religious foundations, because that is not clear? In fact, I have a series of questions so that I can understand what the Government are seeking to achieve. Having been a school governor for very many years, I know that it is important that land use for schools is clear—whether they are part of a trust or a local authority—because otherwise future changes are very difficult. I speak from the heart in that regard.

Baroness Hayman of Ullock (Lab): Amendment 467F, also spoken to by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, is about the transfer of lands to academy schools. I reiterate the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock: does this mean that local authorities have to transfer land even if they do not want to? How is that being managed and consulted on? The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford made an extremely helpful speech for understanding the background to this issue, giving the Church’s opinion about church school academies.

I want to make a point here. The local school in the village next to where I live where all the local children go was a lovely Church of England school. It had a poor Ofsted inspection, where it failed on one small part, and was then forced into being an academy trust. It is a church academy trust and the school is doing well, but the point is that the school did not want to do that; it just wanted to carry on as a Church of England school. I do not think any school should be forced to go down a route that it does not want to go down.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con): Moving on, the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, asked whether Amendment 467F was entirely about schools with religious foundations. There are also non-religious schools that have these charitable site trustees. We are not talking about academy trusts here: we are talking just about the charitable site trustees. They are mainly religious, but there are others that are not.

The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, also asked whether the trust required proceeds from the original premises to fund—no, I am sorry, this is something that I asked. It might be interesting to the noble Baroness that, if the trust required proceeds from the original premises to fund new schools, I was concerned about that. It has been made clear to me that capital funds come from local authorities where there is a need to provide sufficient school places, so I hope that will also put the noble Baroness’s mind at rest.

I was asked where the local authority fits into this. It will be in no worse a position than if the same schools had relocated as maintained schools or as foundation and voluntary schools, where the local authority would be obliged to provide the new site and transfer it to the trustees. Land would be held for the purposes of the academy, with appropriate protections for public value, including that the land could ultimately return to the authority if in future it is no longer needed for a school, so the local authority is protected on that.

The noble Baroness also asked whether it is a compulsory swap and what local consultation there would be for the local authority on the swap. It would be a compulsory swap only if the trustees are being asked to surrender their interest in the current site in exchange. We would expect such arrangements to occur only after the usual processes for relocating a school, which would include consultation and a consideration of the impact of moving places from one site to the other. All those issues would have been looked at.

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