This article originally appeared in the December 2016/January 2017 edition of the Westminster Record.
by JP Morrison
Catholic education is rightly celebrated for all the successes it achieves every day. Education is at the heart of the Church’s mission and it is the place where Christ and his Church are encountered.
From this we derive the qualities and characteristics that define Catholic education. Our schools have the child at the centre, providing the very best educational opportunities and life fulfilling experiences. They are places where every child matters and where safety, well-being, enjoyment, tolerance, respect and dignity are reflected in all aspects of school life.
Our schools strive for excellence across the entire curriculum. They also promote strong and positive links with the wider community, and are places of effective social integration for our children as well as children of other faiths.
And yet, there are many challenges to Catholic education from a variety of sources, including changing regulations, a reduction in available funding for our schools, as well as objections from those who argue against all forms of religious education.
Since I last wrote in these pages in April, the government has reversed its decision to force all schools to convert to academies. If this is the case, why change?
First, it continues to be government policy that the majority of schools in this country should become academies in future years. It is government policy to make fewer resources available for local authorities to support our schools. Financing schools and services is becoming increasingly demanding, putting greater pressure on school budgets.
If we are expected to do more with less, then it is preferable that the solutions to all the challenges we face come from within our communities, so that we can maintain autonomy and control over our own future.
Change is the reality in education today. Our schools do not become better by chance, they become better by change. If we are content in knowing what we stand for then we should be vocal and clear about where we want to go.
Our key purpose with the academy strategy is to help shape Catholic education for the children we serve, the parents who have entrusted us with their child’s whole development, and the staff who work in our community.
‘Help one another – this is what Jesus teaches us. This is what I do. And I do it with all my heart.’ – Pope Francis.
This is our opportunity to define what it means to work and serve Catholic education in the years to come.
The families of schools
No Catholic school or college in the diocese should be seen as working in isolation. We seek to go further than the existing partnerships between schools that have flourished over many years, to establish and secure a new spirit of openness to dialogue and working collectively and cooperatively together. We are at our best when we work together for each other and the core principles of Catholic social teaching, namely, the dignity of the individual, the common good, and solidarity and subsidiarity, which are integral to all decision making and actions undertaken by a Catholic school.
To that end, it is intended that each school that becomes an academy will join with others in a Catholic Academy Trust (CAT), to help protect, develop and extend our mission to the Church. All schools have been matched and grouped with other schools within their local authority area or local deaneries, with the intention that close proximity will allow for better collaboration, and opportunities to develop more tangible, durable and sustainable partnerships. Each grouping will allow local Catholic parishes to see a direct link to their local network of schools which can reflect local identity and community.
The families of schools have been designed to contain both primary and secondary schools, where possible, to provide opportunities for closer ties between the two sectors. According to the Department for Education, financial viability and sustainability are reached when there are 5,000-plus students per Trust. The due diligence undertaken by the Education Service has grouped schools to include around 7,000 students in each of the 12 different families of schools.
These families are designed so that, if one CAT encounters any unforeseen trouble, then another CAT can help steer a course out of trouble by working closely with the Trust to address and resolve any identified obstacles to improvement.
This strong collaboration with shared accountability can lead to better progress and attainment for pupils, and help schools meet expectations, as school leaders and teachers can share thinking and planning together, and governors can come together to share strategic thinking, to combine skills and to support each other in challenging times.
School leaders, teachers and other staff can be shared across more than one school, enabling schools to find different solutions to recruitment challenges, to retain staff by providing new opportunities within the group, and to plan succession more effectively.
Groups of schools can find it easier to find and fund specialist expertise (specialist teachers and specialists in areas such as data analysis, finance, health and safety) and provide richer curricular and extra-curricular activities. The economies of scale and collective purchasing made possible within larger groups can help schools cope better with shrinking budgets.
Opportunities for Development
CATs will also provide additional opportunities for staff development in teaching and learning, and leadership and management. There may be shared subject leader roles in primary schools, who can share knowledge and expertise for the benefit of all students in the CAT. The diocese will work in partnership with St Mary’s Catholic University in Twickenham to develop a suite of programmes to support the personal and professional development of our teachers, leaders and governors.
Diocesan Service Company
A Diocesan Service Company will be established to help procure services for all CATs in a wide range of areas, such as HR, legal advice and financial assistance. It will be a broker of the best services for all Trusts and identify and review outstanding services for schools to adopt. Further work and consultation will take place to ensure that the right services are provided at a cost that represents value for money.
The Project Board
A Project Board will be set up to manage the transition to Academy Trusts. It will have the expertise and breadth of support that is required to implement the strategy effectively, and will include a representative from the DfE (who have approved our model), as well as legal, financial and educational experts, and a project management service. The Board will meet with each family of schools, and will listen to concerns and evaluate and implement ways to mitigate any risks. It will meet those schools who have already agreed to take part in January and we will publish regular updates of the progress of this pilot to all governing bodies over the year ahead.
Religious Order Schools
Religious Order schools and independent schools in the diocese have a unique charism and recognised tradition that needs to be celebrated and supported. Next year we will invite them to attend a meeting to help shape the partnership of schools within the designated families of schools.
A timeline for implementing this strategy has been shared with governing bodies at every school so they can see how this will unfold. Each month we will continue to publish information regarding progress and achievement.
We are very much aware that dialogue and consultation must continue and involve a wider group, including staff in our schools, parents, local community schools, local authorities, and professional associations.
The child is the priority; change is the reality; and collaboration is the strategy.
I must stress that there will be no forced academisation. Each school will be invited to consider the best way forward. We seek to build this future through solidarity and subsidiarity.
Our purpose is to provide the very best opportunities for the Catholic child, family and all those thousands of people who work tirelessly every day to achieve the witness to faith and academic excellence in our schools and colleges. Our strategy is to strive for a future that protects, secures and develops Catholic education.
JP Morrison is Director of Education for the Diocese of Westminster