The responsibility of all

The Bishop of Oxford spoke in a Second Reading of the Schools Bill in the House of Lords on Monday 23 May. Read the full text of his speech or watch on Bishop Steven’s Facebook page.

My Lords, there is much to welcome in the new Schools Bill, as my colleague the Rt Revd Prelate the Bishop of Durham has indicated with other noble Lords. In particular, it is good to know the government’s direction of travel on academisation and the continued emphasis on raising standards. I support the comments made by other noble Lords on the need properly to resource our schools, particularly in the aftermath of the pandemic, and to safeguard the morale of heads, governors, and teachers and to pay much greater attention to mental health provision.

It is vital as well to continue to build on secure partnerships in education across the statutory, voluntary, church and faiths sector.

The education of our children has never been the sole responsibility of central government – it is the responsibility of all. These vital partnerships have flourished for many decades to the mutual benefit of all and the common good.

It is very good to note the government’s intention to safeguard those partnerships into the future through the Schools Bill and the process of academisation which will follow. One of the tests of the Bill will be the strengthening of social capital and of strong intermediate institutions.

The Diocese of Oxford has 284 Church schools and shares in the education of over 50,000 children. We have sponsored and developed two highly effective Multi Academy Trusts (MATs) of our own. We are also active partners in a further 18 MATs across the three counties. Over the last decade our role in education has steadily expanded. We stand ready to play our part in the academisation programme over the next decade. Some of our schools are large but many serve small rural communities and are cherished as a vital part of the educational provision across the three counties.

There will be particular challenges in the pace of academisation which will be needed to meet the government’s targets, and I very much hope that the minister will be able to give assurances in her closing remarks about the vital importance of small rural schools to their communities and about the proper resourcing of what will be a very significant and rapid change for them. It would be helpful to have greater clarity on what will govern or limit the size of MATs in future: will it be the number of schools – which may each be small – or the number of pupils cumulatively?

I have found in discussion with our senior school leaders that there is some ambiguity on the face of the Bill around Clause 19 and 20 – the requirements to make regulation about governance. We note the government’s assurance to protect governance in MATs where the majority of schools were formerly church schools of any type, whether Voluntary Aided (VA) or Voluntary Controlled (VC).

However, Clauses 19 and 20 can be read as making a distinction between VA and VC schools here and as giving assurance of majority church governance only in those MATs where more than 50% of schools are VA. It would be helpful to have the minister’s assurance of intention here and an undertaking to clarify this point at Committee Stage.

Finally, my Lords, the Bill makes provision for local authorities to apply for academy trust orders for all of their schools. May I ask the minister for guidance on the ways in which the Department of Education ensure that there are no perceived or actual conflicts of interest or preferment between these local authority spin off MATs and other MATs?

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