Education Secretary says academy status offers Catholic schools the chance to 'extend hard-won freedoms'

Catholic schools can avoid “unsympathetic meddling” by secularists if they take up the Government’s offer of academy status, the Education Secretary has said.

Writing in The Catholic Herald this week, Michael Gove said that opting out of local authority control would ensure a Catholic school could “remain true to its Catholic traditions”.

He urged parents who favoured academy reform to “make their voices heard” as bishops and governors consider whether to take up the offer.

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Mr Gove’s plea comes after the Catholic Education Service of England and Wales (CESEW) signalled for the first time that Catholic schools could become academies if they and their bishops wanted to.

About 150 “outstanding” schools have become academies under Mr Gove’s model but none of them, until last month, were Catholic. In light of the CESEW statement, Mr Gove said he hoped to see “many Catholic schools coming forward to become academies during the next year”.

He said the academy model gave Catholic schools a chance to extend “hard-won freedoms” over admissions, staff appointments, the teaching of religion and the way they are governed.

He said Catholic schools had “a deserved reputation for being well-run” and had provided “some of the most conspicuously inspiring leaders in the field”. He cited Michael Gormally, former headmaster at Cardinal Vaughan Memorial school, west London, and John McIntosh, former head at the London Oratory.

Mr Gove said: “Of course, what really makes Catholic schools stand out is their Catholicity … A key element of [Cardinal Manning’s] vision was that Catholic schools must be allowed sufficient autonomy to integrate the Catholic faith into every aspect of school life. A Catholic ethos is not something confined to RE lessons, but a pervasive set of values that find expression throughout the school day.”

The Education Secretary said that people who opposed academies and free schools on ideological grounds were also likely to be hostile to faith schools.

He said: “Active in the teachers’ unions and in other parts of the education establishment, they often misrepresent the Catholic school ethos as a mechanism of religious indoctrination and wrongly portray the admissions criteria used by Catholic schools as selection on the sly…

“But by becoming an academy, a Catholic school can place can itself permanently out of range of any such unsympathetic meddling and so ensure it can remain true to its Catholic traditions.”

Schools that become academies have more independence over what they teach and can exert greater power over unions. They also gain extra funding that would otherwise be handed to the local authority.

Catholic academies will be funded entirely by the state. The Church will stop paying 10 per cent of its capital costs, as it does under the voluntary-aided system.

Eric Hester, retired Catholic headteacher, said there were “big advantages” to becoming an academy, but that Mr Gove had failed to mention them.

He said: “The biggest advantage is that an academy school does not have to follow the national curriculum, so Catholic governors will have regained control of this most important area.”

But Mr Hester said it was a “big blow” that academy reforms required the permission of the local bishop.

“We are not talking about a benign figure in a mitre,” he said. “We are talking about diocesan bureaucrats, many of whom are as thick as thieves with the local authorities.”

Earlier this month St Joseph’s College in Trent Vale, Stoke, became the first Catholic school to acquire academy status under the Coalition’s reforms.

Headteacher Roisin Maguire said the change allowed the school to set its own priorities without outside influence and “be master of its own destiny”.

She said it secured the school’s future “from a financial point of view” but was not a response to “meddling” over its Catholic identity. “We’ve never really suffered from that,” she said. “We are aware [of] what people say about faith schools but we don’t spend a lot of time worrying about it.” The school, rated as “outstanding” by Ofsted, is in the trusteeship of the Christian Brothers and so is independent from the Archdiocese of Birmingham.

Andy Burnham, Shadow Education Secretary, said Catholic schools were an “important” part of the education system, and had been “early adopters” of the Labour academy model, “turning around schools in some of the most deprived parts of the country”.

He said Mr Gove “risks diverting resources and attention from raising standards for all children, by focusing obsessively on structural changes such as free schools – which at best will be meaningless for the majority of parents, and at worst could see standards fall and inequality rise as has happened in Sweden”.

A full version of Michael Gove’s article is printed in this week’s edition of The Catholic Herald.

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