Governors of Sheffield Catholic schools feel ‘misled and duped’ by order to become academies

Governors of Catholic schools in the diocese serving Sheffield say they feel ‘misled and duped’ by an order to become academies that they never agreed to.

Tuesday, 11th January 2022, 8:13 pm
Bishop of Hallam Rt Rev Ralph Heskett.

Schools in the Diocese of Hallam, which has 16 schools in Sheffield, have been told by the church to become academies without the governors ever agreeing to begin the process, they say.

The move has also been criticised by school leaders’ union the NAHT in a statement issued on Friday. The organisation has also held a meeting with governors and headteachers who are concerned about the plans.

A letter from Bishop of Hallam Rt Rev Ralph Heskett, dated January 2021, said: “Our schools are central to fulfilling our mission, and to our parish communities. They actively promote social cohesion, engendering a sense of belonging for all.

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“They are places where every child matters and where safety, well-being, enjoyment, tolerance, respect and dignity are reflected in all aspects of school life.

“Pupils are cherished for who they are, as much as for what they achieve, and all achievement is recognised and celebrated.”

He added: “After a great deal of work, and examination by the Diocesan Trustees, I have come to believe that the long-term future of our schools and Catholic education in the Diocese is best served by all diocesan schools becoming equal partners in a Catholic multi-academy trust (MAT).

“It is my intention, therefore, that as outlined last year we now move to establish two new multi-academy trusts within the Diocese with all Diocesan schools and academies, including all remaining voluntary-aided schools, becoming part of one of them.”

Of 47 schools in the Diocese of Hallam, which covers covers Yorkshire and the North Midlands, 19 are voluntary aided, 28 are academies, with 23 in single academy trusts.

A document drawn up by a committee looking at the proposals says that all schools in the diocese should be moved into one of two multi-academy trusts.

The union has called for an investigation into why the government (via the Regional Schools Commissioner) have issued academy orders without the agreement of schools’ governing bodies, as the Academies Act requires.

In a letter sent to the Regional Schools Commissioner for the area, NAHT National Secretary Rob Kelsall wrote: “Having met with a large number of school leaders and governors last night, it is clear that there will need to be in investigation as to the decision-making processes which led to unsolicited section 4 academy orders being issued to voluntary-aided schools within the Diocese of Hallam.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT, said: “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.

"Voluntary academisation will bring with it commitment and success. Compulsion backed up by threats is counterproductive and doomed to failure.

"The education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, has categorically stated that he will not set an arbitrary date for schools to convert to academy status and that he supports a system with a variety of different school types. This must be upheld for all schools in the Diocese of Hallam.”

Philip Patterson, director of schools (primary) for the Diocese of Hallam, said the Diocese of Hallam Catholic Schools Multi- Academy Trust project as a whole had received formal approval from the RSC Advisory Board.

“The project is a single project involving the formation of two Catholic MATs and encompasses the Bishop's vision for all 47 schools and academies to join either St Clare or St Francis Catholic MAT,” he added.

“There are many benefits for schools being part of a large MAT and for the Diocese of Hallam's main driver is the need to develop and secure Catholic education for the long term including the current arrangements we have jointly with the Anglican dioceses for the operation of Catholic/Church of England schools.”

He added that the proposal had been in development for som time and the decision of the Advisory Board in December had given it the go-ahead to move forward to the next stage, with consent given by the Bishop of Hallam.

While the Advisory Board decision had triggered the issue of academy orders to voluntary-aided schools, he said the document would not take effect until the governing body of a school had passed a resolution to convert and the necessary legal processes had been completed.

For existing academies transferring to the new Catholic MATs, he said the governing boards of those academies must themselves agree to do so and sign the relevant legal documents in order to transfer.

“All our schools are fully informed of the need to take these next steps and those in Phase 1 are currently consulting with stakeholders. The outcomes of this consultation will inform decisions about the future of those schools,” added Mr Patterson.

The Department for Education has been contacted for comment.