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Catholics, Academies, and Catholic Academies

Since academisation has taken on an air of inevitability, I thought I’d offer up a few thoughts about what this could mean for Catholic education. Whilst some are instinctively opposed to the changes, below I offer some reasons why this could present an important opportunity for us to improve our educational offer, as well as offering up a few caveats. I should add, I’m no expert on these things, and just offering a few first reflections – for any basic mistakes, blinding omissions or searing naivety, mea culpa

Structure – Catholic schools, unlike many, are not organised through catchment areas. Historically this has meant Catholic schools have had quite diverse intakes, with students coming from all over town, whilst also being culturally diverse, particularly as immigration patterns have brought with them new communities of Catholics. Freedom from catchment has also meant there is geographic diversity with regards feeder schools, particularly in rural areas. This can lead to a certain atomism, particularly within a system where each school is encouraged to look only to its own affairs. Even within cities, there can be a dislocation between primary and secondary, and indeed between primaries themselves, so that feeder and fed have not always worked together as effectively as they could.

The new academisation programme, and the MAT structures that will emerge from it, gives an opportunity to bring coherence and a more collaborative culture to our educational offer. It could help move our gaze away from supporting individual schools and their fairly loose relations with one another, toward a holistic perspective which starts with the question: ‘how do we provide a joined-up Catholic education from 3-18?’ This will bring new perspectives but also new priorities, looking toward a Common Good rather than our current archipelago approach – and perhaps with it a new era of reciprocity and achievement.

Governance – whilst we are used to hearing that schools need to attract governors with greater expertise and skills, those who make such lofty submissions do not always appear well aware just how difficult a task that is. Not all schools have available to them the local pools of expertise that might exist in abundance in the big cities, so that attracting governors with the desired skills can be quite challenge. To then find amongst that limited pool enough candidates willing to give up their time, for free, in a role that has become increasingly demanding, only serves to restrict recruitment still further.

The MAT structure could allow schools to come together under one governing body, diluting the challenges of attracting skilled governors and enabling stability across all sites. Indeed, it could also transform governance from an isolationist to a collective perspective that might seek to share resources, staffing and practice in the belief that, just as a rising tide can lift all boats, so a broad-based approach to governance can be for the benefit to the wider community of schools.

Curriculum – one of the most exciting and potentially transformative freedoms of academy status is that of curriculum. A new academies structure offers the possibility of developing the kind of holistic, integrated Catholic curriculum which serves students best. It could allow us to progress beyond the secularised model of learning, and the inflexible tramlines of subject departments, and put in place a philosophy of learning which supports our primary intention of forming both person and intellect.

Independence – whilst Catholic schools work closely with their LA, they also collaborate with one another through the diocesan education structures. This has been fruitful and allowed the sharing of expertise and viewpoint across diverse regions. However, it has not always been as effective as it could, especially since so many schools are in entirely different LAs, indeed entirely different socio-demographic or cultural situations, and are thus often ploughing different fields.

The development of deanery-based MATs could offer an opportunity to usher in a new era of collaboration and, importantly, allow diocesan education services an enhanced role in overseeing but also directing those schools. Whilst schools have historically worked with LAs for improvement and development, this could (and should) now fall to diocesan education services. This might represent a capacity increase that not all education services can currently meet, but exciting possibilities present themselves for those who would grasp them – alongside Section 48 inspections, an opportunity for more direct collaboration and oversight between cathedral house and schools arises which, whilst bringing with it a heavy responsibility, can provide an opportunity for taking a more prominent role developing the Catholic ethos and academic excellence of our schools.

Conditions – there is a genuine and entirely understandable concern from many quarters about what academy status means for terms and conditions of those who work within. There is a danger I am being overly optimistic on this, but academisation could allow Catholic schools to lead the way in showing others how we believe schools ought to be run (I think of one MAT not far from me which abolished Performance Related Pay), and put in place our own vision of management and accountability that better reflects our concerns with the welfare of all those who contribute to our education offer. We are a pro-family and pro-life faith – could academy status allow us the power to witness, so far as is possible, to those two things in a way that had not been entirely possible up until now?

Leadership – it is difficult to find leaders in Catholic schools due to the limited pool of eligible applicants. Whilst in some places this might be because those who are eligible simply never receive the kind of training that could prepare them for leadership, there are other places which do not have enough suitable candidates to train up even if they wanted to do so.  MATs could offer a streamlining of leadership structures within a certain locale, sharing expertise and training opportunities across a group of schools. This could improve succession planning and staff development, ensuring we have a pool of well-trained future leaders to call upon when required.

There are, however, some challenges to be acknowledged:

Ghettoisation – a collection of Catholic MATs, which seem to be the most natural forming for our schools, could risk isolation from the wider educational community. It would be vital that Catholic MATs were important voices in their local educational contexts, alongside their collaboration with one another. We are, and ought to be, an outward looking institution – we need to ensure our schools would continue to do the same. A case of both/and rather than either/or.

Leadership – Whilst the presence of good leadership could be used to improve a wider variety of schools within a MAT structure, this can go both ways. At the moment, poor leadership in one school need not impact the chances of another school down the road. Within a MAT, the potential impacts of poor leadership can be magnified, trickling down across a broader number of schools, thus drawing a whole cluster of Catholic schools into a negative spiral. This would not be good for the children in our schools, or the reputation of Catholic education more generally. Diocesan authorities and MAT governance would need to be vigilant here, and willing to be involved to ensure no such outcome could be allowed to occur.

Conditions – as above, it could go the other way. Concerns about staff welfare and working conditions, and the new powers academies have which might further erode these two things, are entirely fair. Faithful MATs, and possibly also diocesan educations services, would hopefully recognise management and leadership to also be opportunities for witness, and have in place floor standards and levers that can be pulled when it is deemed a serious issue arises.

Supportit might well be the case that many diocesan educational services do not have the personnel or the budget to be able to provide the level of support which a properly reformed and unified MAT structure might demand. Indeed, some other dioceses may deem that such an enhanced level of support is an investment that cannot be justified in straitened times, when the Church takes on so many other responsibilities alongside education, each with their own competing demands on time and resources. Should this be the case, then a gulf could open up between those dioceses than cannot or choose not to support a reformed model, and those that can and do. From a wider Catholic perspective this is clearly less than ideal, and would do little to challenge (and might even entrench) the already existing divide between different dioceses and their schools.

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