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Schools: Faith Schools

Volume 767: debated on Monday 14 December 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether, if a faith school is rated inadequate and is required to become an academy, they will enforce the transfer of church land to the academy trust.

The Education and Adoption Bill would require failing church schools to become academies, but land will not be removed from the church. Dioceses or their schools will sponsor the majority of failing church schools; where a non-church trust sponsors a church school, the religious character of the church school will be protected. The diocese would continue to own the land and make it available to the sponsor while it is a school, as happens with existing academies, solely for the purpose of a church school.

I thank the Minister for the clarity of his response. However, to provide reassurance to all faith groups, I ask that he add an amendment to the Education and Adoption Bill. In addition, what safeguards can he provide that the particular ethos of faith schools can be retained within a non-faith academy trust?

The noble Baroness raises an extremely good point. We are very anxious to ensure that the faith ethos is maintained. We have gone further than the noble Baroness outlines, in that we have had extensive discussions with the churches and there is a revised memorandum of understanding with them, which I believe is now largely, if not entirely, agreed. These have much more extensive provisions as to precisely how a school’s religious character will be protected.

My Lords, can the Minister expand on the nature and character of the safeguards being provided, given that the prime issue around this land is not the land itself but that it has been given by parishes and generations of generous citizens to guarantee the religious character of those schools?

I would be delighted to expand on that as the right reverend Prelate mentions. We intend to insert within the articles of association a faith object, which requires the trust to ensure that the character of the church school is maintained. There will be an entrenchment clause, which requires written consent of the diocese for changes to the articles relating to the maintenance of the church school’s religious character—for instance, those relating to local governing bodies or the church’s power to appoint staff. There is a requirement that members and trustees are appointed to provide proportionate diocese representation on the MAT, and to establish a local governing body, and for the creation of a scheme of delegation relating to the religious character of the school agreed between the MAT and the diocese. This will be protected.

My Lords, I hope that the Minister will have time to answer this question from me. I am sure that he will be aware of media reports over the weekend concerning Highfield Humanities College in Blackpool, where parents were very concerned about its conversion to an academy by the Tauheedul Education Trust, which already runs 10 Muslim faith academies—yet only 2% of the pupils at Highfield are Muslim. Will the Minister provide an assurance that there will always be full parental and community consultation when an academy changes from not having a religious character to having one—and, indeed, when it changes between faiths?

I am grateful for the noble Lord’s shorter question. I am very much aware of the case to which he refers. Of course, Tauheedul has had three of its schools inspected and they are all outstanding. We shall ensure, as our amendment to the Bill makes clear, that in all these cases in future, as has generally happened in almost every case in the past, parents are communicated with about the details of the change in status.

My Lords, a 2011 report by the London School of Economics found that by becoming a sponsored academy the school not only raises its attainment but raises the attainment of neighbouring schools. I declare my interest as managing director of a trust that operates two free schools. Does my noble friend agree with me that, while the ownership of church land is clearly very important, what really matters is the quality of the education that goes on in the schools that sit on it?

I entirely agree with my noble friend. It is very good to see more evidence emerging of a rising tide lifting all boats. I agree with the point he makes, and it is true that church schools have consistently outperformed local authority maintained schools.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a former chair of education in Lancashire, which has the largest number of church schools. I can tell the Minister that those church schools do not like glib references slurring one side or the other. Will the Minister give the House a total assurance that all church schools will be treated equally financially? At the moment, some schools run directly by the Government get more money—more capital and more revenue—than some local authority and voluntary aided sector schools. Can we have a guarantee that there will be no bribery?

I assure the noble Baroness that there will be no bribery—I believe it is a criminal offence. Ongoing funding for all schools is done on an equal basis. When some schools are started, there are some diseconomies, and some very small schools get extra money. I point the noble Baroness to the latest figures based on 2014 key stage 2: at Church of England schools, 82% of pupils achieved the required level 4, compared to 79% of pupils at local authority maintained schools.

My Lords, I was not clear on the answer given to the right reverend Prelate. I thought that part of his question referred to the property position and whether the church owning the land would be forced to part with it or have it compulsorily purchased. It seems a bit equivalent to a housing association, where the property was also often given by someone a long time ago. Can the Minister clarify the property position for me? If he does not know it offhand, which I would not necessarily expect, it could come through in an answer. I would like clarification about the property aspect raised in this Question.

I can confirm to my noble friend now that the church would not be forced to part with the land, and nor would it be compulsorily purchased.

Protecting the ethos of particular schools is not confined to church schools. There is a widespread feeling that multiacademy chains make new academies in their own image. How will the Minister ensure that locally developed values, nurtured over the years, can be maintained?

The noble Baroness makes an extremely good point. It is very important that sponsors coming into schools are very conscious of what the noble Baroness calls “locally developed values” and make sure that schools’ traditions, which I am very well aware of in relation to one school that I sponsor, are maintained.