Part 3: Diocesan Education Services - Time for Change

Part 3: Diocesan Education Services - Time for Change

13 January 2021

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, and maps out his way forward ( Part 1: Is the Catholic Education System Fit For Purpose? ; Part 2; Catholic Education in England – A System in Need of Reform).

The Historical Context
Since the 1944 Education Act and the establishment of the dual system, the Church has worked in partnership with the state in the delivery of Catholic education.  For forty four years until 1988 the system ran smoothly as the Church oversaw all matters relating to the faith including admissions.  It also worked closely with the government of the day on the provision of new schools and the maintenance of existing ones contributing 50% of the costs in 1944 incrementally reducing its contribution to its current level of 10% since 2001 for voluntary aided schools.  Whilst the 1944 Education Act emerged after lengthy national negotiations between Rab Butler and Cardinal Griffin, in practice the key partnership was played out between local education authorities and dioceses across the country.  In general LEA officers and diocesan schools commissioners enjoyed a productive and cordial working relationship in which both sides had a vested interest in ensuring ‘their’ schools developed and prospered.

The passing of the 1988 Education Reform Act was the first serious challenge to the status quo which had been established for over forty years.  The relatively tranquil life of a diocesan schools commissioner was to be rudely interrupted as the education world underwent revolutionary change.  Kenneth Baker was determined to introduce fundamental lasting reform through the introduction of the National Curriculum.  It was accompanied by the Local Management of Schools (LMS) creating 25,000 self-regulating businesses; a new contract for teachers; and the opportunity for Grant Maintained Schools to opt out of local authority control.  Over the next decade a new inspection regime was introduced through the creation of Ofsted and the publication of examination results and league tables.  In a tumultuous ten years the national education system had gone from a secret garden to the top of the political agenda and the nature of diocesan schools commissions themselves inevitably changed as well.

The role of diocesan schools commissioner was typically filled by a priest with a particular interest in education or a retired headteacher seeing out the autumn of their career in support of the Church.  A DSC appointment would rarely be the result of a competitive process and the salary on offer would be modest, far below the equivalent role in the LEA.  With the whirlwind of the 1988 Education Reform Act the pace increased considerably.  The demands of dealing with newly autonomous schools some of which began to run into financial difficulties or fall foul of the punitive Ofsted inspection regime put a premium on an effective working relationship with the relevant LEA.  And the Church itself needed to respond to the demands of the accountability system by administering Section 48 inspections assessing the quality of every Catholic school’s RE provision and its Catholic Life.

The new demands from 1988 onwards resulted in the expansion of diocesan schools commissions, now often renamed diocesan education services.  Whilst the range of responsibilities increased the reality remained that it was the LEAs that did the heavy lifting.  The operational oversight of LMS and the support of schools particularly those in difficulty was almost entirely dependent on the resources, experience and expertise of the local education authority.  Grant Maintained (GM) status briefly threatened the capacity of LEAs when 1,200 schools across the country ‘opted out’ but the new Labour Government elected in 1997 quickly returned the system to local democratic control and largely restored the status quo.

The Academy Revolution
Following the 2010 General Election the newly appointed Secretary of State, Michael Gove supported by his lieutenant, Dominic Cummings introduced the Academies Act.  Gove was extraordinarily successful in achieving his two objectives.  During his four year tenure at the DfE, Gove oversaw the conversion of 5,000 schools into academies and in doing so he achieved his second priority – the destruction of local authorities.  Whilst in structural terms he brought a level of change in the education system never seen before, after ten years the evidence is compelling.  The academy project he introduced, which remains the government’s policy to this day, has failed.  In terms of national outcomes and international comparisons there is no evidence that education standards have improved.  Despite billions of pounds and a decade of turmoil, the English education system today is atomised and incoherent.  Academisation remains an ideological experiment that has failed.  In the process it has had a deeply negative impact on the Catholic education system.

The Impact of Academisation on Diocesan Education Services
On 28 January 2011, the Bishop of Nottingham, Malcolm McMahon, in his capacity as Chairman of the Catholic Education Service, made a historic announcement.  It would now be possible for any Catholic school with the approval of their diocesan bishop to become an academy.  Bishop McMahon himself led the way when the Becket School in Nottingham with three partner primary schools formed the first Catholic MAT in the country in September 2011.  It was a momentous announcement in that it reflected the reality that the Bishops’ Conference was divided on the question of academisation.  From that point onwards there was to be no further collective discussion of the issue.  In effect, the Church, through its dioceses across England, had opted to pursue nineteen different approaches and there was to be no attempt to coordinate a national policy of any kind.  The second consequence of Bishop McMahon’s announcement was that it was the beginning of the end of the dual system which had been in place for sixty seven years since 1944.

The impact of Michael Gove’s academy programme on local education authorities has been well researched and attracted a great deal of attention.  Much less well known is the impact it has had on diocesan education services.  The two are inextricably linked.  As outlined above, the pressure on dioceses increased markedly after the 1988 Education Reform Act which heralded a decade of tumultuous change.  However, in terms of day to day operation it fell to LEAs to provide advice and support especially to schools that were in difficulty either financially or in terms of standards.  From 2010 onwards the capacity of LAs to provide advice and support was drastically reduced so that by the time Gove left the DfE in 2014, they were a shadow of their former selves.  Starved of funding and stripped of their responsibilities local authorities were reduced to fulfilling a few statutory functions around school places, special needs provision and transport.

With the demise of local authorities from 2010 onwards diocesan education services were increasingly exposed to a range of responsibilities far beyond those for which they had been created.  Inevitably, some Catholic schools found themselves in difficulty as a result of adverse Ofsted inspections.  In itself that was not a new phenomenon but now the consequences were much more serious.  Previously, it would have been the local authority that would step in and provide advice and support to Catholic schools that found themselves under pressure from Ofsted but given the implosion of LAs as thousands of schools became academies that lifeline was increasingly severed.  Reluctantly but inevitably, it fell to dioceses to offer what support they could which in practical terms was very limited.  Diocesan education services had never sought a role in being responsible for education standards but increasingly that became the reality.

For state schools the situation was straightforward.  Under the draconian rules established by Gove any school that was judged to be ‘failing’ by Ofsted forfeited the right to control its own destiny.  There was only one solution and that was academisation.  Not only was the school forced to become an academy but it was directed to join a multi-academy trust (MAT) run by a private sponsor.  In a very real sense the school was now ‘under new management’ and its future success was entirely dependent on the quality of the incoming regime.

Catholic schools that found themselves in difficulty with Ofsted were in a better though still precarious position.  There could be no direction from the DfE to any Catholic school to academise but equally the pressure was on and the clock was ticking both on the school and the diocese.  Within a specified time period an action plan would require the school to ‘prove’ it could succeed when Ofsted called again.  The outcome of the original Ofsted inspection highlighted there were problems which often would be beyond the ability of the school to resolve on its own.  Equally, the capacity of the diocese to offer practical help would also be very limited.  Naturally, they would look to broker support from across the diocese perhaps via a Teaching School or a National or Local Leader of Education.  In reality, however, during a decade of national austerity there has been precious little capacity in the system for the strong to help the weak.

In response to Bishop McMahon’s announcement in 2011 that Catholic schools could become academies with the agreement of their diocesan bishop, there was at first a cautious response.  As described, it was Bishop McMahon who led the way in Nottingham with the first Catholic MAT.  In 2012 Birmingham followed suit and in 2014 Plymouth became the first diocese in the country to academise all its schools.  By the time Gove left the DfE in 2014, he had been remarkably successful in converting 5,000 schools into academies across the country.  Much less so in the Catholic sector where just 227 schools had academised at that stage, a far slower rate of conversion than their state counterparts.  Interestingly, in the six years since Gove’s departure Catholic schools have academised at a significantly faster rate and now with over 700 academies they slightly exceed the national ratio.  In 2020 academisation is a major feature of the landscape in Catholic education.  Its impact varies enormously across the nineteen dioceses but overall it now accounts for over a third of Catholic schools.  In ten years the dual system, as we have known it, has been shattered beyond repair.

A Case Study – St Anne’s Primary School
St Anne’s Primary School in Nuneaton had been a problem for as long as anyone could remember.  Serving a socially neglected community it attracted the close attention of Ofsted and was increasingly under pressure.  The DfE wanted to know what the diocese intended to do to turn around years of decline.  Desperate to avoid closing the school the Birmingham DES came up with a rescue plan.  At short notice it gathered together the four local primary schools alongside the secondary school and insisted that they form a multi-academy company (MAC).  There was no history of collaboration between the schools and no strategic vision.  The purpose of the arrangement was purely pragmatic – an emergency step to save a primary school.  By academising the school it would buy time and remove the threat of imminent closure.  And so, within a few hectic months, in March 2015 the Holy Spirit MAC was formed.

Today St Anne’s Primary Academy is prospering within the Holy Spirit MAC.  It still carries the residual Ofsted verdict of ‘Requires Improvement’ but the reality is that it is flourishing in every way.  It has done so because it is part of a larger family and its future is now secure.  It could have been a very different story.  The school could not rescue itself and for years neither could the diocese.  Academisation was the only option and in this case it worked out.  There will be many similar stories of Catholic schools around the country though not all of them will have a happy ending.      

Support for Schools – A Brave New World
With 237 schools, Birmingham is the largest Diocesan Education Service in the country.  It has four qualified teachers available to provide advice and support on issues of school improvement.  There is a further team of five teachers who support RE, Catholic Life and Section 48 inspections and thirteen other staff provide a wide range of admin and support functions.  Considering it is responsible for such a vast number of schools across thirteen local authorities stretching from Staffordshire to Oxfordshire it is a small organisation with a very tight budget.  For dioceses with far fewer schools their DES will be staffed by a handful of people even though they have to manage the same range of responsibilities as Birmingham.  They are run on a shoestring.

Thirty years ago Birmingham LEA was responsible for a similar number of schools to the DES.  It employed well over a hundred teachers with a vast array of specialisms available to provide advice and support to schools.  Just like their community school neighbours any one of the sixty three Catholic schools within the LEA could rely on Birmingham to appropriately deploy its army of support staff to help especially if they found themselves in difficulty.  By 2010 the staff numbers had been reduced considerably but there was still a wide range of support available.  Today following the national academy programme Birmingham LA is a skeleton service similar in size to the DES.  It devolves government funding to support schools in an Ofsted category to an external provider.  Beyond that it cannot provide any practical curriculum or specialist support itself to schools and struggles to maintain the statutory functions for which it is responsible.

Since Gove’s academy programme was launched in 2010 whilst local authorities have all but collapsed there has been a huge rise in entrepreneurial activity around support for schools.  Since 2012, Teaching Schools and National and Local Leaders of Education have offered their services to other schools, particularly those in an Ofsted category.  Supported by the DfE the fees charged by those offering their expertise are very high and some enterprising schools have made huge profits from their position of strength.  Meanwhile those schools in need, in the absence of LA support, have been forced to seek support elsewhere and have paid dearly for the privilege.  A school under pressure from Ofsted frequently experiences financial challenges too.  It can ill afford to pay lavish fees for support and advice but has little choice in the punitive accountability system in which it must operate.

In addition to support from within the school system, since 2010 there has also been an exponential growth in the provision of private consultants.  Former HMIs, LA advisers and school leaders proliferate in offering their expertise to schools in need.  Some are undoubtedly highly effective and in great demand.  Others prove to be much less successful and experience a short shelf life.  The problem from the schools’ point of view is that it is an unregulated industry in which the promises often exceed the delivery and many thousands of pounds can be wasted in the process of finding out the difference.

In the brave new world that marks the national education system, Catholic schools find themselves battling to survive in an unforgiving and punitive market system.  The security of local authority support has been removed.  Diocesan education services are virtually helpless in providing practical help. Schools that find themselves in an Ofsted category do so for a reason and find it very difficult and sometimes impossible to extricate themselves from the situation.  In these circumstances it is not surprising that some dioceses turn to the academisation solution.  Sometimes, as in the case of St Anne’s in Nuneaton, it works out well.  Other schools will be less fortunate because academisation is far from a panacea.  The reality is that most Catholic schools are not academies and cannot turn to a larger family of schools.  If they fall foul of Ofsted the future will be bleak and challenging.   

Staff in Diocesan Education Services
Education has always been at the forefront of the Church’s mission.  Following the restoration of the hierarchy in 1850 the bishops decided to build schools before churches.  It was a powerful statement of intent which was reinforced nearly a century later when the dual system was enshrined in law through the 1944 Education Act.  Today the nineteen diocesan directors of education and their staff continue a long and honourable tradition in representing the Church in its work with the state providing Catholic education for 785,000  children and young people in 2,122 schools across England.

Many staff who work in diocesan education services see their role not just as a career but as a vocation in service to the Church.  Often they could work elsewhere in more lucrative jobs but they choose not to because they feel a deep commitment to Catholic education and a personal loyalty to their diocesan bishop.  They work hard often over many years and they deserve the appreciation of the Catholic community for all that they do.  This paper is extremely critical of the Catholic education system and calls for radical change.  However, the criticisms relate to profound structural problems way beyond the power of any individual diocesan education service to rectify.  Ultimately, it is only the Bishops’ Conference that can address the problems and authorise a solution.  That is a matter for them and is not the responsibility of any diocesan employee.

How Effective Are Diocesan Education Services?
The simple answer is we do not know and that is a major problem.  The Bishops’ Conference, individual bishops, the Catholic Education Service, directors of education and the wider world are unable to answer the question.  And yet their own effectiveness is a question that can be answered by any one of the 2,122 Catholic schools from the nineteen dioceses around the country. 

For nearly thirty years every Catholic school in the country has been subject to a regular cycle of Ofsted inspections.  Each one has a long history of such inspections and currently carries a legal judgement about the quality of its provision.  Similarly, every Catholic school carries a judgement and report from its own diocese on the quality of its RE and Catholic Life provision following its most recent Section 48 inspection.  It may be that the school has a different view from Ofsted or the diocese about the accuracy of a judgement but it is nevertheless based on an inspection following a published framework.  Every school knows the basis on which it is inspected and judged irrespective of whether it considers the outcome to be fair and accurate.  In addition to Ofsted and diocesan inspections, every school has its examination results published annually and subsequently features in league tables.  It is clear that all schools in England, including Catholic ones, are subject to constant and relentless public scrutiny.

There is no such accountability when it comes to diocesan education services.  Uniquely in the world of education the DES is exempt from professional scrutiny.  As outlined, all schools are subject to Ofsted inspections and in the case of Catholic schools Section 48 inspections too.  The children’s services of every local authority in the country are inspected by Ofsted every three years.  Regional Schools Commissioners must meet key performance indicators that in the past have been published and subject to comment in the media.  Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) whilst not directly assessed by Ofsted increasingly have their schools inspected simultaneously.  And MATs are regularly held to account by the RSC both in terms of educational standards and the management of their funding.  It is a remarkable anomaly that in this high accountability world, diocesan education services are exempt from public professional scrutiny.  The effectiveness of diocesan education services is a question that needs to be answered.  The absence of professional scrutiny is not a healthy situation and it needs to change.

The Governance of Catholic Education in Dioceses
In the absence of external scrutiny the quality of the governance of Catholic education within dioceses becomes all the more important.  The nineteen bishops in England vary widely in their knowledge and experience of education.  Some have a high level of expertise based on experience acquired at national level as well as within their own diocese.  They have chaired or been closely involved in the work of the Catholic Education Service and are well used to dealing with ministers and senior officials from the Department for Education (DfE) and elsewhere.  At the other end of the scale some bishops are very honest in declaring that they know little about the education system and are heavily reliant on their director of education to ensure everything runs smoothly.

Across the nineteen dioceses there is a wide range of approaches to the issue of education governance but in all of them there are three key relationships, namely the bishop, the trustees and the director of education.  In dioceses where the bishop is well versed in education and takes a close personal interest it is likely there will be constant interaction between him and the director of education.  The director will be very clear about the bishop’s thinking and preferred course of action and will seek to implement the appropriate policies as a result.  In some cases the bishop will have very limited knowledge of the education system and will rarely see the director of education beyond periodic formal meetings.  In this situation it will be for the director of education to interpret the best way forward, to implement policy in a way that they feel is in the best interests of the diocese and to report back to the bishop and the trustees when they meet.

The trustees who serve on the diocesan education sub-committee or equivalent body have a very important role.  Their experience and expertise in education is a key issue.  It would be very desirable that they include members with significant school leadership experience and current working knowledge who are able to ask the director of education the right questions and to independently evaluate the answers.  Their relationship with the director might be compared with that between a governing body and the headteacher in a school.  However, the trustees start at a significant disadvantage.  Whilst in a school setting the headteacher’s advice will be crucial to any governing body they also have access to significant independent information.  Governors will be aware of the Ofsted and Section 48 judgements; they will know in detail the school’s performance in examination results; they will have access to a wide range of feedback from staff, pupils and parents; and they will regularly receive reports of progress from external reviews that will be undertaken constantly in any good school. 

By contrast the trustees have no such information by which to judge progress in a diocesan setting.  They will receive a formal report from the director of education who will share their own perceptions of what progress is being made.  Much of it will be the work of the schools in the diocese and their success or otherwise.  But in terms of the success of the DES itself it will be very difficult to make an informed assessment because there is no independent source of information and no agreed framework within which to make a secure judgement.  All that trustees can do is receive the information the director provides but they have little basis on which to challenge anything they are told.  It is a very unsatisfactory situation.

Whilst the bishop and trustees in a diocese have no access to independent information on the quality of the diocesan education service for which they are responsible there are important basic questions they can and should ask of the director regularly.  Some of the broad areas might be as follows:

1) Every school has a School Improvement Plan which sets out in detail what it intends to achieve over the next year and often, more broadly, over the next three years.  It specifies how it will achieve the stated priority, who will be responsible, the timescale in which it will be achieved and the criteria by which it will judge its success.  Is there a similar Diocesan Education Improvement Plan?  If there is, who was responsible for its creation?  Were stakeholders such as governing bodies, headteachers and school communities involved in the consultation process?  If there is no such document or process would it be a good idea to start one, perhaps using the extensive experience and expertise of schools in the exercise?

2) What are the performance management arrangements within the DES?  Does the director have clear performance management objectives?  Who leads the performance management review and target setting and who is the specialist who advises on the process?  Which trustees sit on the performance management panel?  Is the director’s annual pay review clearly based on the performance management outcome?  In what way are the performance management objectives of the director aligned with the broader improvement objectives of the DES?

3) What policies are followed by the DES?  All Catholic schools are recommended to follow five generic CES policies but in practice there are up to fifty that they may need at one stage or another.  So, apart from the CES policies what process does the DES follow to deal with the myriad additional policies that are required?  All local authorities and unions meet through a local Joint Negotiation Committee (JNC) process to discuss and agree policies relating to schools.  Does the DES have a JNC?  If not, how does it formulate policies that have the support of unions for implementation in Catholic schools and MATs? 

4) In the absence of any statutory inspection process does the DES submit itself to any kind of external scrutiny?  Is there a peer review system with other dioceses?  Does the DES seek feedback on its own performance from its schools?  If not, why not?  If there is no system of external scrutiny, should there be one?  If so, what form will it take?

The four areas above are not challenging or exceptional.  They are fundamental to the running of any school and will be familiar to any senior leader or governing body.  Any diocesan education service that is not delivering them is not performing to an acceptable professional standard.  It is surely reasonable to expect that the DES meets the same expectations that are required as a matter of course for its schools.  After discussion, if the bishop and trustees are not satisfied that the standards are being met there is a further question to ask - Is the Diocesan Education Service fit for purpose?

The answers to the questions raised above are not in the public domain.  Only the bishop, the trustees and the director of education are in a position to answer them.  It may be that some dioceses are able to demonstrate confidently they deliver all of them and despite the absence of public scrutiny the DES is functioning in an exemplary fashion.  If so, those diocese(s) would do a great service to the wider Catholic community if they could share their success with other dioceses.  One of the great weaknesses of the Catholic education system is its ineffectiveness in sharing best practice within and particularly between dioceses.  It would be wonderful to celebrate the work of a diocese in which the bishop, the trustees and the director of education were able to outline how they successfully tackle some of the key issues raised above.

Time for Change
Diocesan directors of education are responsible for organisations that range in size from small to tiny.  The four Archdioceses in England – Westminster, Birmingham, Liverpool and Southwark run diocesan education services that are staffed by fewer people than a two form entry primary school.  And for the smallest dioceses their education teams are smaller than a one form entry primary school.  And yet these very small organisations are expected to discharge huge responsibilities.  They must deal with the Regional Schools Commissioner who will be very insistent that the DES addresses intractable issues that affect schools that are struggling; they must liaise with a number of local authorities who can no longer offer practical support for their schools; and of course they must deal with the schools and MATs themselves in which school leaders and their staff have never been under so much stress.

It is time for the Church to take stock.  Is it sensible for the Catholic education system to be run in nineteen different ways through small organisations that lack the resources, experience and expertise to discharge the responsibilities that have been thrust upon them?  It is a rhetorical question.  The answer is clear and it can only come through a ‘One Church’ national system.  If we weren’t convinced before, the events of 2020 should leave us in little doubt. 

The Impact of the Pandemic
Since March of this year schools have had to face a challenge that has afflicted the whole world.  In a very real sense school leaders and their staff have joined the emergency services on the front line.  Many Catholic schools and MATs went far beyond their teaching and learning remit.  During the period of lockdown for most pupils they reached out to the most vulnerable families in their community by providing food and constantly checking the welfare and progress of every child and young person.  And now every day they heroically battle to deliver education to children and young people against impossible odds.  Since September and the return to full operation their work has been interrupted constantly by the need for bubbles of classes or year groups and numerous staff to self-isolate.  The level of stress on staff and pupils is incalculable and will never be fully known.  And yet they carry on regardless truly living out their vocation to serve the pupils in their care.  They are genuine heroes and we all owe them a huge debt of gratitude.

For many of us the daily experience of protecting ourselves and our families has been a very different experience.  We engage with our schools and their leaders from the safety of our homes via Zoom meetings.  All professionals who can work from home such as DES staff have rightly followed government advice and done so.  In the process, however, there has been an extraordinary disconnect between those in school working on the front line every day and those offering advice from the side lines.  Nothing will ever be quite the same again.  But one thing is for sure.  We all need to listen and learn with humility to the lived experience of leaders and staff who have served on the front line.  We need to hear their perceptions of what they have been through and their thoughts on how the Church through the DES needs to respond as a result.

Next Steps
I have shared some of my thinking in two previous papers entitled ‘ Is the Catholic Education System Fit for Purpose?’ and ‘Catholic Education in England – A System in Need of Reform’.  They can be accessed on  In the second paper I set out some proposals about the changes I believe the Church needs to make to ensure the Catholic education system is fit for purpose and, indeed, to secure its survival.  I will not seek to repeat the details here other than to say that I think two key steps are urgently needed:

1)The Bishops’ Conference should seek to academise every Catholic school within a diocesan  family of MATs of approximately 25-30 schools.

2)The Bishops’ Conference should appoint a National Catholic Schools Commissioner and a team of six further leaders four of whom would have line management responsibility for all Catholic schools as Provincial Commissioners.

The past ten years have been devastating for the Catholic education system in England.  In the process diocesan education services have been overwhelmed by the new context in which they have found themselves.  They need radical change and support at a national level if they are to be fit for purpose in the future.  Time is short for the Bishops’ Conference to lead us into the better future that our schools and MATs so badly need and deserve.

Jim Foley
December 2020


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