While the Church remains committed to voluntary-aided (VA) schools, rapid changes in government education policy mean "we must be prepared to innovate and adapt" by embracing academies, according to the chairman of the Catholic Education Service (CES), Bishop Malcolm McMahon OP.
Speaking last Thursday to the Catholic Voices Academy in London, the Bishop of Nottingham said the Church has never been wedded to "one model of Catholic school" and needed to use the opportunities the Government afforded to advance what he called "the Church's God-given freedom to advance her cause". This meant, he said, "we must always have a hard-headed approach to examining government and opposition policy, and work with the government of the day to protect and develop our schools." He said church schools were a product of Catholic history and government policy, adding that "there is a real diversity in the provision of education, whether faith-based or not, in our country - and this is likely to continue and develop."
The speech marks a significant shift in thinking in the CES, which under its former director was sceptical about the extension of academies and free schools. The new thinking reflects the greater openness to free schools and academies on the part of a number of dioceses - especially Bishop McMahon's own diocese of Nottingham, where a third of all Catholic schools are now academies.
The trend is confirmed in new figures released by the CES today, showing that there are currently 148 academies - 74 primary, 72 secondary, one all-through & one middle deemed secondary - in 13 of the 20 dioceses in England.
Although more than 90 per cent of Catholic maintained schools in England and Wales remain VA, Bishop McMahon said "a process of discernment within dioceses, and between the CES and the Department for Education, enabled us to conclude that VA schools could, but would not have to, convert to academy status." He said the CES was now "working with the Department for Education and not against it" and had developed "excellent conversion policies and documentation, including memorandums of understanding between the diocese and academy, which satisfy the requirements of the Bishops and the Government and which have been found useful by most dioceses who have considered or are considering conversion to academy status."
Such policies protect areas such as the bishop's role in the appointment of directors of academies and members of local governing bodies in multi-academy trusts, the teaching of religious education, the appointment of practising Catholics to certain positions, as well as admission policies.
During questions, Bishop McMahon criticised oversubscribed Catholic schools which sought to define more tightly the definition of Catholic. Although he did not mention it by name, there has been a long-running row between the Diocese of Westminster and Cardinal Vaughan school in west London over its admission policies.
Bishop McMahon said oversubscribed schools should "think about a new school" or expanding the existing school to meet demand, rather than turning away students because they were not Catholic enough. "The qualification for being a Catholic is to be baptised," he said, adding that it was "not very Catholic to exclude people" because they didn't meet "my criteria, not the Church's criteria". He said there were now "many ways" of creating new schools, and this was the "best solution" to meeting rising demand for
places at Catholic schools.
The audio of the lecture will be on the Catholic Voices website: www.catholicvoices.org.uk
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