The government’s agenda for change in education includes the option for schools of any persuasion to consider conversion to academy status (an ‘academy’ is a state funded independent school). Indeed, government policy is openly one of encouraging conversion; they would like to see ‘academies as the norm’. What we desire as guardians of Catholic schools is to ensure that our schools offer the best education possible to our young people so ‘that they may have life, and have it to the full’ (John 10:10). This means offering them a high quality academic, personal, social, physical, spiritual and moral education built on the solid foundation of the teachings and practice of the Catholic faith. What we want is to support parents in educating our young people so that they have every opportunity to flourish as confident and courageous Catholics; to become those who know how to give something back, to work for the common good.
So, can these ‘policies’ or ‘ideals’ fit together? There is not an easy answer to this. Some would say that they can and others that they can’t. Here in the Diocese of Nottingham, we liaise with twelve Local Authorities and, on the whole, these have been successful partnerships that have been of benefit to our schools over the years. It is also true to say that there have been some difficulties, particularly in relation to funding formulas, provision (or not) of school transport, and so on. Local Authority (L.A.) policy on education and, specifically on academy conversion, varies widely even within our diocese. The picture across the country as a whole is even more variable. In some areas there is no longer a School Support Service within the L.A. leaving schools to buy services from an increasingly expanding educational marketplace. All this means that a single response, or implementation of a single model for Catholic schools nationally is no longer appropriate or even possible. New ways of thinking about how schools operate and work together and how they are supported to improve need to be carefully developed and considered taking into account these local variations. It goes without saying that, the core principles for Catholic education will always be shared and central to the mission of our diocesan education services and schools. Whether or not a school is Voluntary-Aided, Independent or an Academy is not the driving force, “…the life of faith needs to be the driving force… so that the Church’s mission may be served effectively, and the young people may discover the joy of entering into Christ’s ‘being for others’ (Spe Salvi, 28).” (Pope Benedict XVI, St. Mary’s College, Twickenham, September 2010).
In the Diocese of Nottingham, following a great deal of dialogue with Headteachers and governors, undertaken by its Education Service, the Trustees took the decision to embrace the academy programme and to give their consent for schools to convert to academy status as part of multi-academy trusts. Already our schools are organised into what we know as ‘families of schools.’ That is, a secondary school and its partner primary schools. These families of schools vary in size from three to seven schools. Historically, the effectiveness of the informal collaboration between these groups of schools has been variable. Some families of schools have developed excellent collaborative practice, meeting together regularly, for example, to plan joint teacher training days for staff, often on religious or spiritual formation and education, and so on. Other families of schools have only been able to meet rarely and have not really established a consistent pattern of collaboration. Coming together to form what is a single legal entity as a Catholic multi-Academy Trust gives our schools a chance to crystallise these partnerships creating strategic opportunities to develop and learn together so that all may flourish; the stronger supporting the weaker, so that no school is left behind.
In one of our first Catholic Academy Trusts, formed in September 2011, the Directors (Governors) as employers, have appointed some key personnel to work across the family of schools: a Lay Chaplain; a School Social Worker from one of our partner organisations ‘Faith in Families’ (formerly the Catholic Children’s Society) to offer support to children in vulnerable families and an Educational Welfare Officer, as the L.A. no longer provides one. The advantages of these arrangements for the children and families speak for themselves in terms of continuity – the Chaplain, the EWO, the Family Support Worker, will all be available to families as the young people move through the system from 3 to 18 years of age. Opportunities for the creation of some shared administration and finance staffing structures are also being explored by some of our multi-academy trusts as are the possibilities of appointment of specialist teaching and support staff – modern foreign languages, special educational needs, specialist sport and music teachers, being the most obvious examples.
The Diocesan Education Service (DES) continues to support all its schools and academies with advice on religious education, collective worship, governance, admissions, Section 48 Inspection, and so on. The DES is also exploring new ways of supporting its schools and academies, for example , recently developing a pilot project with Church Marketplace and a group of School Business Managers with a view to brokering (not providing) services specifically suited to Catholic schools and academies, e.g. Human Resources advice and support.
Currently there are eight Catholic Academy Trusts in the Diocese of Nottingham formed by 31 academies. On October 1st, a further seven schools will convert bringing the total number of academies to 38; this represents 45% of our schools. Our view is that, by coming together to form Catholic Academy Trusts, our schools will be a in a stronger position to face the challenges of an uncertain and continually changing future.