Part 2: Catholic Education in England – A System in Need of Reform

Part 2: Catholic Education in England – A System in Need of Reform

25 August 2020

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Jim Foley, a Catholic headteacher for over 20 years and currently Chair of a Catholic Multi Academy, sets out a thought provoking critique of Catholic education in England (Part 1: Is the Catholic Education System Fit For Purpose?) and now maps out his way forward ...

Context
In the preceding paper I ask the question ‘Is the Catholic Education System Fit for Purpose?’  I conclude that it is not and in this paper I set out some ideas on how it might be improved.

The previous paper refers, as this one does, to the work of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.  However, the issues addressed in both papers refer exclusively to England for a simple reason.  The Welsh Government does not follow an academies policy and, therefore, the issues described here are irrelevant to Catholic schools in Wales.

The Crisis of Diocesan Education Services
In the previous paper I set out the historical context in which diocesan education services evolved since the 1944 Education Act that introduced the dual system.  For sixty six years diocesan schools commissioners, latterly DES directors, worked harmoniously with their LEA counterparts to secure and protect the best interests of Catholic education.  It was a partnership between Church and state that was longstanding and successful.  Today that partnership is in ruins since the Academies Act of 2010 has effectively destroyed the capacity of local authorities to discharge the wide ranging functions they previously undertook.  The destruction of local authorities is well known.  What is much less evident is the fact that the collapse of local authorities has also effectively sounded the death knell for diocesan education services in their current form.  The academies whirlwind of the past decade has overwhelmed the capacity of the Church to respond to the state in a way that secures and protects our schools, never mind improves them.

If one looks at the educational environment in which our schools function it is not difficult to recognise the relentless pressure on school leaders and their staff.  There are few who work in schools today who can remember a time before Ofsted and the relentless cycle of inspection.  Since 1992, all of our schools have been subject to a constant round of inspection both by the state and the Church.  They are well aware of the significance of the published report and its implications for the future success and security of the school.  Similarly, they are conscious of the annual high stakes round of examination results and the published league tables that follow.  School leaders have long been acutely aware of the twin pressures of managing school budgets during ten years of austerity and recruiting staff in an era in which teaching has never been less attractive to many.  Leaders who work in particularly challenging schools and fall foul of the accountability system must face the additional pressure of responding to interventions by the RSC and the DES.  The daily commitment of our school leaders, teachers and staff in living out their professional vocation is nothing less than heroic.  And in recent months we have seen them respond in further remarkable ways as they have risen to the daunting challenge of managing Covid-19 and the return to full operation in September.

As outlined in the previous paper, we have seen a huge expansion in the number Catholic academies over the past decade.  By July 2019, there were 645 (31% of the total) almost all of them in diocesan MATs.  Whilst these MATs are not themselves subject to Ofsted inspections they are not free from rigorous scrutiny.  Increasingly, Ofsted undertake simultaneous inspections of MAT schools and there is a regular review cycle of the performance of MATs led by the RSC.  The CEOs of Catholic MATs, like their state counterparts, are required to demonstrate the ‘added value’ they and the MAT bring to the individual member schools. 

It is very clear that the 2,122 Catholic schools in England, like their state counterparts, are subject to rigorous and relentless public scrutiny.  Unlike their state counterparts they must also report to their diocese on their management of Religious Education and Catholic Life through Section 48 inspections.  It is remarkable that unlike their schools the bodies that conduct the Section 48 inspections are not themselves subject to any form of public inspection at all.  The nineteen diocesan education services operate in an environment in which the performance of their schools and leaders and staff are under constant scrutiny.  They liaise with a wide range of professionals from the DfE and local authorities whose performance is similarly subject to public scrutiny.  The work of regional schools commissioners is largely hidden from public view but in the past their KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) have been in the public domain and the subject of comment in the media.  The attrition rate in the turnover of RSCs suggests that it is a high pressure role which does not lend itself to longevity.

In this climate it is very difficult to see why diocesan education services should be exempt from the same professional scrutiny as the rest of the educational world.  The reality is that they are not remotely equipped to face such scrutiny.  As described in the previous paper, following the 1988 Education Reform Act the range of responsibilities undertaken by dioceses increased.  However, the fundamentals in the partnership between dioceses and local authorities remained unchanged.  It was left to the LEAs to undertake the full range of secular education functions relating to our schools.  The demise of local authorities since 2010 has been catastrophic for the Church and dioceses have been left brutally exposed in a new environment with which they are ill equipped to cope.  If they were subject to Ofsted inspections there are few diocesan education services that would fare well.  On the grounds of leadership and management alone they would struggle to explain their academy strategies.  Only three could claim a coherent vision.  The Liverpool anti-academy position is clear and unambiguous.  Plymouth and Nottingham could equally claim to be consistent by academising all their schools.  But we know from the Plymouth experience that there is often a wide gap between the rhetoric and the reality.

Our diocesan education offices are full of hard working people deeply committed to the Church but they have been given an impossible task.  They do not have the capacity, funding, experience or expertise to meet the challenge they have been given.  They need a level of support far beyond what is currently available.  An alternative vision is urgently required.

Seven Key Leaders
The proposals which follow are dependent on the appointment of seven key leaders.  They would form the senior leadership team of the Catholic education system so it is a given that they must be proven Catholic leaders of the highest calibre.  Their salaries  must be commensurate with the level of their responsibility and match their counterparts in similar state roles such as the national and regional schools commissioners.  A recruitment process that is transparent, extensive and meticulous would be essential.  It should be conducted by an explicitly Catholic recruitment agency with a proven track record at national level.

The National Catholic Schools Commissioner
The person appointed to this role would be the lead professional for Catholic schools in England.  They would be the public face of our education system and they would need outstanding communication skills.  They would be a proven headteacher and would be experienced in leading a wide range of schools, preferably a Catholic MAT, as well as having fulfilled a range of other relevant leadership roles.  They would work very closely with and be line managed by the Chairman of the Catholic Education Service.  The National Catholic Schools Commissioner would be appointed by the Bishops’ Conference and would report to them regularly.  The NCSC would be responsible for the line management of the other six Commissioners.

Six Catholic Schools Commissioners
A further six Commissioners would be appointed to support the NCSC.  Four of them would have regional leadership roles, one would lead on Leadership and Governance and another would lead the Catholic Education Service configured largely as now but much more integrated within the wider system.  They would be line managed by and report to the NCSC.

Provincial Catholic Schools Commissioners (Four Posts)  
The four Catholic Schools Commissioners above would each serve one of the four Provinces in England, namely Birmingham, Liverpool, Southwark and Westminster.  As such they would be responsible for all the schools within their Province.  Taking Liverpool as an example the Commissioner appointed to the Province would be responsible for all the schools in the dioceses of Liverpool plus Hallam, Hexham and Newcastle, Lancaster, Leeds, Middlesbrough and Salford.  In total the seven dioceses account for 872 schools across the north of England.  They are also covered by two regional schools commissioners.  The Provincial Commissioner would become the line manager for all diocesan education services within the Province.  They would not necessarily be based in the provincial office but in a location central to the geographical area, in this case perhaps in Leeds.  On the same basis the Provincial Commissioner for Southwark might be based in Portsmouth whilst the other two might be located in Birmingham and London.

Catholic Schools Commissioner – Leadership and Governance
One of the key priorities of the new system would be to develop a vibrant national network in which Catholic leaders at every level would be identified at the start and throughout their teaching careers.  They would be encouraged and supported to progress into middle and senior leadership.  Working closely with the four Catholic universities and other schools of education a culture of scholarship and field research would be encouraged.  An explicitly Catholic NPQH and related courses with academic rigour and high status would be developed.  Full and part time secondments would be used extensively in every diocese.  Similarly, governor recruitment and training would become a key priority with explicitly Catholic courses provided leading to a qualification similar to the National Leader in Governance that is available now.  The Commissioner appointed to this role would have a clear track record of Catholic leadership as a practitioner and also extensive experience in higher education.

Catholic Schools Commissioner – Legal and Political
The Commissioner appointed to this role would lead the Catholic Education Service as it is currently configured.  It would have no responsibility for education policy development but instead would focus on its twin roles in relation to legal matters and political support and defence of Catholic education.  Legal advice would be provided to the four provincial offices and thereafter distributed to dioceses and schools as appropriate.

Diocesan Staffing
The role of Diocesan Education Director would be retained in each diocese.  That person would be line managed by the Provincial Commissioner.  Other than administrative support the permanent staffing complement in diocesan offices would be very small.  However, there would be an extensive use of secondments from practitioners in Catholic schools at every level.  Some would be on an annual full-time, some on termly full-time and others on part-time secondments.  They would be drawn from primary, secondary and special education and would spend most of their time in the field working alongside staff in diocesan schools.

Funding
For a transformational change on the scale recommended in this paper there will be significant additional costs.  The salary, on costs and related expenses of the senior leadership team would be between £1 and £1.5 million per annum.  There would be substantial additional costs associated with an extensive national secondment and leadership programme depending on scale.  However, in the scheme of things the additional investment would be minimal.  We have 2,122 schools with 850,000 children and young people in them who generate £4.6 billion per annum.  An additional overall spend of £9 million per annum on the programme I have described would represent less than 0.2% of each school’s budget.  It would be a very good investment.

An Old System in a New Context
The structure of the Catholic education system has not changed since 1944 but the context in which it operates now is changed beyond recognition.  Between 1944 and 1988 the dual system enabled an effective working partnership between the Church and the state.  It was a simple system and it worked well.  The introduction of grant maintained schools between 1988 and 1997 posed a serious threat but whilst local education authorities were weakened they were not destroyed.  It is the last decade that has been calamitous.  Since 2010, the destruction of local authorities has laid bare the vulnerability of the Church’s situation.  On the ground dioceses have been overwhelmed and the Bishops’ Conference has been left isolated and adrift.  Urgent action is required to strengthen the position of the Church both locally and nationally.

The academy issue illustrates very clearly the problem the Bishops’ Conference has in dealing with government policies that are perceived differently by different dioceses.  In 1988, the Education Reform Act presented a huge dilemma with the introduction of grant maintained schools.  It was quickly apparent that there was no consensus in the Bishops’ Conference.  Broadly speaking dioceses in the south of England accepted the policy whilst those in the north were vehemently opposed.  Ironically, it was not the Bishops’ Conference but the new Labour Government elected in 1997 that enabled unity to be restored when grant maintained status was abolished.

Thirteen years later history repeated itself in 2010 with the whirlwind of the academies revolution.  Bishop McMahon’s announcement was a recognition that once again the bishops were divided and the only option was to allow each diocese to make its own decision.  In doing so, the Bishops’ Conference had effectively lost its ability to speak for the Church as a whole.  The purpose of this paper is to argue that should not happen again.  The Bishops’ Conference must find unity expressed in a single voice but in order to do so it must have the best possible professional advice and support.  The two divisive and damaging responses by the Bishops’ Conference to government education policies in the past thirty years have occurred because such advice and support did not exist.  It is a historic weakness that must be rectified.

Support for the Bishops’ Conference  
In the previous paper I was critical of the response of the Bishops’ Conference to the academy revolution that has engulfed the national education system since 2010.  The criticism is simply one of omission.  The bishops have not had access to high quality professional advice to help them in their decision making.  Over the past decade while locally in dioceses DES directors have been overwhelmed, the bishops have been unaware of the national picture that has unfolded.  If the team that I am proposing were to be appointed, the Bishops’ Conference would never again be left unaware of national educational issues of crucial significance to the Church.  They could securely rely on the timely advice of the best national Catholic education leaders in the country.

Once the National Catholic Schools Commissioner is in post they would report to the Bishops’ Conference as a headteacher does to their governing body.  In any good school the governing body, after rigorous questioning and detailed discussion, almost invariably accepts the professional advice of the headteacher.  Occasionally, there may be an issue on which the governing body is divided in which case the matter would be resolved by a majority vote.  What is absolutely essential is that every bishop, just like any governor, accepts the will of the majority even if they are in a minority.  Once a decision has been made it must be accepted, supported and implemented by all.  In doing so the authority and unity of the Bishops’ Conference on educational matters would be restored. 

The Academy Question
Since 2010, there has been one question that has dominated all others.  As outlined in the previous paper, the Church is in disarray on the question of academisation.  In philosophical terms there is a powerful case for rejecting the academy programme as deeply flawed in the principled way that the Diocese of Liverpool has done.  Equally, there is a compelling argument for academising all schools and implementing a truly Catholic vision.  What makes no sense is a system in which some Catholic schools are academies and others are not based on the random perceptions of individual headteachers and governing bodies.

In 2010, there was a powerful case for the Catholic Church to reject academisation as an unacceptable policy.  Ten years and 645 schools later, that ship has sailed and it is something of a historic irony that it was Bishop McMahon, then of Nottingham, who announced its departure.  Whilst some, including many from Liverpool, may reject the concept of academisation it is too late.  The Catholic Church can never achieve a position of national influence if it is divided against itself.  In the interest of the Common Good it is imperative that there is a uniform approach.  It is time for the Bishops’ Conference to declare that all 2,122 Catholic schools will become academies and join a diocesan MAT within a short timescale.

Once the Bishops’ Conference made the key strategic decision to academise every Catholic school the effective implementation of the strategy would be crucial.  The process undertaken by the Nottingham Diocese in 2017 appears to have been exemplary in terms of vision and execution.  It displayed a clarity and decisiveness which the Church nationally would do well to emulate.    

The Government Position
Since Michael Gove left the DfE in 2014 none of his successors have shared his messianic enthusiasm for the academy project.  Without objective evidence that academies perform better than comparable schools and conscious of the weight of opposition, Justine Greening, Damian Hinds and the current incumbent, Gavin Williamson have barely mentioned the subject.  Since the peak of the academies revolution under Gove public support for academies has waned as a steady stream of negative stories have emerged.  High profile cases involving fraud and the excessive pay of academy leaders as well as many examples of dysfunctional MATs  have taken their toll.  And the stance of regional schools commissioners has markedly changed too.  In 2016, the National Schools Commissioner, Sir David Carter was a passionate advocate of the rapid development of a national network of large MATs.  Two years later, just before he retired, caution was the watchword.  New MATs should only be approved by RSCs if they could prove their quality and long term sustainability.  Today RSCs and headteacher boards, mindful of public perception, proceed with caution in considering MAT applications.  It is somewhat ironic that since Gove’s departure in 2014 while state MAT applications have stalled, in the Catholic sector they have soared. 

Despite the caution of recent years there can be no doubt of the scale and impact of academisation.  Today nearly four million children and young people, almost half of the total, are taught in academies.  Over two thirds of the country’s secondary schools have academised so it is clear, for better or worse, Gove’s project is permanent and irreversible.  Such was the momentum that for a brief period Gove’s immediate successor, Nicky Morgan, declared the government’s intention to academise every school in the country.  In March 2016, she produced a White Paper entitled ‘Educational Excellence Everywhere’ in which the radical proposal was made.  She was prepared to take on the obvious opponents in the form of the Labour Party and the teacher unions but she had not reckoned on a vociferous rebellion from her own backbenchers.  Conservative MPs, largely from the south of England, were inundated by complaints from their constituents who were quite happy with their local school and rejected any suggestion that it would be forced to become an academy.  Before long Nicky Morgan admitted defeat and the White Paper was quietly withdrawn.

There has been some suggestion that the presence of Gove’s lieutenant at the DfE, Dominic Cummings, now in the heart of government, might prompt a revival of the concept of universal academisation.  However, that seems most unlikely given the all consuming nature of first Brexit and now Covid-19.  The current Prime Minister has never shown any interest in or understanding of state education so it seems unlikely that he would do so now.  If all Catholic schools are to become academies it will only happen as a result of the determined and united leadership of the Bishops’ Conference.

The Case for the Academisation of Every Catholic School – A Personal Note
In 1981, I was appointed as head of English in a Catholic secondary school on the Wythenshawe estate in Manchester.  Young and enthusiastic, shortly afterwards I had the opportunity to visit the six Catholic ‘feeder’ primary schools.  I was impressed by much of the work that the primary schools were doing but also surprised at how different they all were.  I thought it would be helpful if we met on a regular basis to agree on a common approach to the teaching of English.  For a variety of reasons it never happened.  Wythenshawe had many challenges but with a distinctive identity from the estate I felt there was huge potential for Catholic education.  Thirty two years later, in 2013 the Wythenshawe Catholic Academy Trust was formed.  I suspect there is considerably more collaboration in Wythenshawe Catholic education today than when I worked there.

In 1993, I was appointed headteacher of St Thomas Aquinas Catholic School in Birmingham.  During my twenty one years as head I was immensely proud of the many things we achieved but there was one area that was a constant source of frustration.  I believed that if we as the secondary school could work much more closely with our partner primary schools there would be huge benefits on both sides and the pupils’ education would be greatly enhanced.  By and large my enthusiasm for greater collaboration was not shared by my primary colleagues.  Shortly before I retired in 2014, we worked closely with some of the primary schools and the DES to form a new MAC.  It was a long hard struggle but eventually five of the primaries agreed while three remained apart.  I was delighted when the Lumen Christi MAC was finally formed the year after I retired.

In 2015, I was approached by Fr Jonathan, Director of Education at the DES to join the board of a newly formed MAC in North Warwickshire.  I had never been to Nuneaton in my life but I was happy to accept the invitation.  In 2016, I was elected Chair of the Holy Spirit MAC and in the five years since its inception I have witnessed in action the vague dream that I first had in Manchester over 30 years earlier and the implementation of the thwarted plan I had in Birmingham many years later.

There was no history of collaboration between the Catholic secondary school and its four partner primaries in the Holy Spirit MAC.  One of the primary schools was in an Ofsted category and had been a problem for as long as anyone could remember.  The secondary school was a concern for the diocese and the local authority.  In January 2018, one of the principals was appointed Senior Executive Principal and under her inspirational leadership the transformation has been extraordinary.  Today every school is flourishing and we have published the Holy Spirit Experience which has aroused considerable interest from Catholic schools across the diocese and beyond.

The Holy Spirit Experience is based on the pioneering work of Professor Tim Brighouse from his time as Director of Education in Birmingham LEA in the 1990s when he published a series of Guarantees.  The Primary, Secondary and Special School Guarantees set out to detail the educational entitlement of any child and young person in Birmingham beyond the national curriculum.  It set great store on the importance of residential experiences and a wide range of extra-curricular activities.  Subsequently, the Catholic Partnership of secondary schools in Birmingham produced their own Catholic Guarantee.  The nine schools outlined in detail what any student would receive in terms of RE and Catholic Life.  It drew widespread support including from Archbishop Vincent who was a staunch supporter of the Catholic Partnership and advocate of the Guarantee throughout his time in Birmingham.

The Holy Spirit MAC adopted Tim Brighouse’s model but adapted it to their own context.  Crucially, the Holy Spirit Experience outlines the educational journey of a child from the age of three in the nursery to the age of eighteen in the sixth form.  It sets out six key areas – Catholic Life; Social Action; Residential Experiences; Sporting Opportunities; Creative and Cultural Experiences; and Vocations, Journeys and Destinations.  In total there are over 100 commitments that the MAC undertakes which have been shared with all pupils, staff and parents.  In December 2019, an extensive evaluation was published with an action plan to address areas for further improvement.  The MAC Board is committed to publishing an annual progress report on the Holy Spirit Experience.

We are proud of what we have achieved in the Holy Spirit MAC so far whilst we recognise there is still much to do.  What is quite clear is that it is impossible to outline a fifteen year journey in Catholic education without the vehicle of a MAC or MAT in which to do it.  No individual school no matter how effective it may be can deliver a full Catholic education alone and that is the single most compelling argument for the academisation of all Catholic schools.

National Catholic Academies Conference in December 2019
On 4 December 2019, an important conference was held in Birmingham on the theme ‘Are MATs and Academies a Threat to the Future of Catholic Education in England and Wales?’ It drew around seventy delegates from diverse educational backgrounds as academics, practitioners and governors and proved to be a very stimulating day.  There were three keynote speakers.  Raymond Friel shared his experience as CEO of Plymouth CAST; Dr Margaret Buck outlined some of the themes outlined in her forthcoming book ‘Renewing the Church-State Partnership for Catholic Education: Engaging with the Challenge of Academisation’; and Louise McGowan, a London headteacher, shared her personal experience of academisation.  The conference was summarised at the end of the day by Professor Gerald Grace.  In addition, there was a series of workshops led by a wide range of speakers who had previously submitted papers that were collated into a conference report.  I led one of the workshops sharing the Holy Spirit Experience outlining the opportunities and benefits that academisation could bring to Catholic schools.

The conference was organised as a collaboration between Networking Catholic Education Trust Ltd and the Network of Researchers in Catholic Education.  As outlined, it drew a wide range of delegates and a diverse array of contributors.  No speaker was unequivocal either for or against academies per se, the presentations and follow-up questions were much more nuanced than that.  Despite the wide range of delegates there was one group that was noticeably missing.  Nobody from the CES or any DES director attended the conference.  The reluctance of the CES and diocesan officers to engage in open dialogue about the most important educational issue of the day is regrettable and lamentable.  It speaks of a defensiveness and timidity on the part of those charged with educational leadership in the Church that underlines the problems we have seen over the past decade.

A Final Thought
In 1991, I attended a conference at Newman College in Birmingham.  It was packed to the rafters and had been convened to discuss the Further and Higher Education Bill which was to become law the following year.  The Church was greatly concerned at the proposal to remove sixth form colleges, including Catholic ones, from local authorities and the potential negative impact the Bill would have on Catholic post-16 education in colleges and school sixth forms.  The Conservative Government minister leading the Bill through parliament was Tim Eggar and his speech was followed by a polite but telling silence.  There were then questions from the floor before Bishop Konstant, Chairman of the Catholic Education Service, who was chairing the conference, indicated that Cardinal Hume wished to speak.  An expectant hush fell on everyone present as a microphone was passed to the Cardinal.  I don’t remember what precise point Cardinal Hume made but I have never forgotten the response of the government minister.  He said: “I can assure you that when the Cardinal speaks, the Government listens.”  It was a remarkable moment and symbolically demonstrated the power of the Church speaking directly to the state.

That conference was nearly thirty years ago.  It is difficult to imagine such a scene today.  What could the Church say to the government about academies?  And why would they listen?  We have seen the power of the Church when it speaks with a single authoritative voice as in ‘The Common Good in Education’.  Since then much has changed and the past decade has seen the Church’s position at national level considerably weakened whilst not being fully aware of the fact herself.  The Church has reached a point when it must decide if it wishes to have a national voice in education and to speak with conviction on seeking the Common Good.  If it does we can be sure there are better times ahead.  Our schools and MATs do extraordinary work every day.  We must celebrate their achievements and learn from their experience.  In doing so, the Church can once again find its voice and provide the moral leadership our education system so badly needs.

Back in 1944, Cardinal Griffin achieved a historic settlement after years of tough negotiation with the government.  The dual system was of immense benefit to the Church for sixty six years but now, after a painful decade, it is broken beyond repair.  It is time for a new settlement but on this occasion it is not the government we must convince but ourselves.  We must unite once again with a clear vision and shared mission.  Academisation represents the passport to a renewed sense of direction.  It will require courageous leadership from the Bishops’ Conference and many others but it is within our grasp.  We must not miss this golden opportunity.

Jim Foley
August 2020

Email: j.foley1952@outlook.com     

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