Bishop predicts Church schools' academies conversion

Primary school classroom The government wants all schools to be academies

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Thousands of faith schools in England could become academies in the next few years, the bishop who chairs the Church of England's education board has said.

Both the Church of England and the Catholic church had been cautious about their schools making the change but have now drawn up policies for it.

The Bishop of Oxford told the Times Educational Supplement (Tes) there would be a "major shift".

About one third of schools in England are faith schools.

According to the Tes, the Right Reverend John Pritchard believes up to seven in 10 Church of England schools could become academies in the next five years.

The government ultimately wants all state-funded schools in England to become academies - meaning they would be semi-independent, with greater control over the curriculum, the school day and pay and conditions of staff.

The government also gives academies money which would previously have been spent on their behalf by local councils to provide certain services.

A few church schools have already applied for or converted to academy status.

'Wither on the vine'

The bishop, who is chairman of the Church of England's Board of Education, told the Tes: "In the long run there will be a major shift to academies because it is what the government is determined shall be.

"The local education authority is going to wither on the vine in many cases. We will be part of that whole movement but have to make sure there is still a family relationship (between schools) as we go through this process."

Both the Church of England and the Catholic Church were initially cautious about advocating or supporting schools' conversion to academy status and have been talking to the government about the arrangements for this.

They had been concerned about land ownership - in case there was a danger of land being lost to the state - and feared that academy status might damage schools' links with their dioceses.

But both now appear satisfied and are drawing up strategies.

'Free-for-all'

Rob Gwynne, head of school development for the Church of England, said: "With all these large scale changes in mind the Church of England's education division is actively creating the capacity and the model to ensure the smooth transition and effective continuance of our work.

"We are working closely with the Department of Education to ensure the important position of the church school system."

The Catholic Church recently said its schools could become academies "subject to further discussion with ministers".

It said decisions on whether schools became academies would not be taken at a national level, but locally, by bishops in individual dioceses.

It is particularly keen to look at arrangements where a cluster of schools works together in a single Academy Trust.

The church's position was set out in a statement by the Right Reverend Malcolm McMahon.

He said: "We are not in favour of a free-for-all in which some institutions flourish whilst others wither, for our schools ...are part of a family both of Catholic schools and the wider landscape of schools. We do not seek to turn our schools into businesses.

"We are also aware of the legislative safeguards that have applied to our schools for many years; we have therefore sought parity with those safeguards and protection for our assets. We are feeling more confident that this can be achieved."

The executive director of the National Secular Society Keith Porteous Wood said: "A mass conversion of voluntary controlled schools into entirely self-governing academies freed from the moderating influence of local authorities will be the churches' dream and most parents' nightmare.

"It is a betrayal of the nation's children to give the churches so much control of our publicly-funded education system."

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