Part 4: The Catholic Education Service - Time for a New Model

Part 4: The Catholic Education Service - Time for a New Model

29 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 ; Part 3; Diocesan Education Services - Time for Change).

Historical Context
The Catholic Education Service traces its beginnings to the establishment of the Catholic Poor Schools Committee in 1847 just before the restoration of the hierarchy in 1850.  This paper focuses on its current incarnation since April 1991.  Approaching its thirtieth anniversary, it seems an appropriate time to evaluate the impact of the CES on Catholic education over the past three decades and to consider its role and purpose in the future.

The Education Reform Act of 1988 heralded a decade of tumultuous change in the British education system.  The introduction of the national curriculum, local management of schools and a new contract for teachers signalled the fact that education had moved to the top of the political agenda.  The statutory inspection of all maintained schools through Ofsted and the publication of examination results and league tables transformed the educational landscape.  Catholic schools found themselves caught up in a whirlwind of change and looked towards the Church for leadership and guidance in a time of uncertainty and unrest.

In 1987, Bishop Lindsay was appointed Chair of a committee established to consider the support of Catholic schools and sixth form colleges.  It reported in November 1989 with ten recommendations  that led to the formation of the Catholic Education Service in April 1991 under the chairmanship of Bishop David Konstant.  The first director was former headteacher and HMI, Albert Price.  The CES published seven Aims for 1991-1992 all of which remain pertinent thirty years later and three of which are wearily familiar.  The first Aim read:  ‘To assist in the recruitment of Catholic teachers for Catholic Schools and Colleges.’  Two others called for a national strategy for leadership and management training in Catholic primary and secondary schools.  And another parallel strategy for the recruitment and training of governors.  Plus ca change! 

Albert Price established four separate groups through which the CES would develop policies each described as a Forum as follows: Forum 1 – Diocesan School Commissioners; Forum 2 – RE Advisers and Inspectors; Forum 3 – Schools; Forum 4 – FHE Colleges (Sixth Form and University Colleges).  In practice Forums 1 and 2 which already existed through the Catholic Education Council proved resistant to a national perspective and often reflected the diverse views of their diocesan bishops.  Forum 3 representing schools was new and complex most often finding expression through participation in a diverse range of working groups.  Forum 4 was a small but cohesive group of sixth form and university college leaders.  

Albert Price resigned in December 1993 and was succeeded in April 1994 by Margaret Smart who had considerable teaching experience in Catholic schools and HE colleges before becoming an HMI. During the remainder of the 1990s the CES was very active in publishing a wide range of written material.  In addition to a termly newsletter sent to all Catholic schools it produced publications such as: ‘Spiritual and Moral Development across the Curriculum’; ‘Governing a Catholic School’; ‘Learning from Ofsted and Diocesan Inspections’; ‘Sex Education Guidelines’.  One additional publication in 1997 ‘The Common Good in Education’ attracted attention far beyond the Catholic education community.  Based on the publication of ‘The Common Good’ by the Bishops’ Conference in October 1996 it set out the Church’s thinking based on the central theological principles of solidarity and subsidiarity.  Published shortly before the 1997 General Election it drew widespread praise, and a degree of controversy, as a clear expression of moral authority by the Church speaking with a single voice to the Catholic community and society as a whole.

The publication of ‘The Common Good in Education’ marked the highpoint of the CES’s achievements over the past thirty years.  It reflected the unanimity of the Bishops’ Conference on educational policy and it reached an audience well beyond the Catholic Church.  The positive relationship between the Bishops’ Conference and the CES was reflected in the close working partnership between Bishop Konstant as Chairman and Margaret Smart as Director.  They agreed on the need to oppose Grant Maintained Status and the additional financial support for GM schools provided by the Conservative Government of John Major.  Bishop Konstant of Leeds formed a close partnership with his Yorkshire Church of England counterpart, Bishop Young of Ripon.  Bishop Young spoke for the CES in the House of Lords when the new Labour Government under Tony Blair was introducing the 1998 Education Act.  It is very clear that in the 1990s the Catholic Church still carried considerable political weight particularly in partnership with the Church of England.  Under Margaret Smart the CES moved to the Bishops’ Conference offices in Eccleston Square, a prime location in central London within walking distance of the Houses of Parliament and the Department for Education.

Bishop Konstant resigned as Chairman of the CES in April 1999 and was replaced by Bishop Vincent Nichols, then an auxiliary bishop in Westminster.  Margaret Smart retired in August 1999 and was succeeded by Oona Stannard, another former HMI.  During her tenure communication with the wider Catholic education community moved significantly towards a digital process and personal and paper contact was much reduced.  The annual census and data gathering moved online but hard copy publications and newsletters ceased.  As the CES reduced its direct contact with schools and colleges there were active discussions between Catholic schools and teacher organisations on the ground.  In April 1996, at a conference hosted in Westminster by Cardinal Hume the Catholic Association of Teachers, Schools and Colleges (CATSC) was launched and for several years it was a very active organisation.  It ran well attended national conferences, organised leadership courses and published regular newsletters.  In more recent years CATSC has struggled to attract new members and to make an impact on Catholic education policy but in its heyday it was certainly a significant voice in schools and colleges.  Over time it became clear that the CES and CATSC were on separate paths and the gap between the two grew significantly during the tenure of Oona Stannard as Director of the CES.

Academisation – A Huge Challenge for the Catholic Education Service
Following the General Election held on 6 May 2010, the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Coalition Government was formed.  Michael Gove was appointed Secretary of State for Education and with breath-taking speed the Academies Act became law on 27 July 2010.  Before the Act had received royal assent Michael Gove had already made it clear that the definition of an academy would be radically expanded.  Now every maintained school in the country was eligible to apply to become an academy with generous inducements to do so.  There were plenty of takers.  In the first tranche about 2,000 schools expressed an interest including 84 Catholic schools.  The Gove revolution was underway and the Church was on the back foot.

On 17 June 2010, Oona Stannard as Director and Chief Executive of the CES made her views very clear.  She wrote in forthright terms to every Catholic school in England spelling out her strong reservations.  Governing bodies of Catholic schools should exercise “great caution” in considering academy status.  The land and buildings were owned by diocesan and religious foundation trustees and they would be unlikely to agree to relinquish them.  Mindful of the political influence wielded by the Church through its 10% contribution to the maintenance of voluntary aided schools she reminded Catholic schools that “he who pays the piper calls the tune”.  It was a theme she would return to later.

Despite Oona Stannard’s reservations the Gove revolution was underway and increasing in momentum.  In September 2010, 150 prominent schools converted to academy status with many more eager to join them including some Catholic schools.  The pressure on diocesan bishops was beginning to build.  It was clear the Church would need to respond soon.

The Bishops’ Conference discussed the issue of academisation at their plenary meeting in November 2010 without coming to a final decision.  Instead a meeting was convened in Westminster on 16 December 2010 attended by a large number of diocesan representatives.  It was clear there was no consensus on the issue of academisation.  Whether fully apparent to the participants at the time or not, it was a significant moment in the history of Catholic education.  In effect it spelt the beginning of the end of the dual system which had served the Church so well for over sixty years.

On 28 January 2011, Bishop Malcolm McMahon in his role as Chairman of the CES issued a historic statement declaring that subject to the agreement of their diocesan bishop, trustees and governing body any Catholic school could apply to become an academy.  The statement referred to reassurances that had been given by the government about the ownership of land and premises remaining with trustees.  Significantly, Bishop McMahon’s statement did not refer to the Church’s desire to retain a financial stake in Catholic academies.

Bishop McMahon himself was the first of the hierarchy to take advantage of the new policy.  In September 2011, he approved the academisation of the Becket School in Nottingham with three partner primary schools thereby establishing Our Lady of Lourdes Multi-Academy Trust, the first Catholic MAT in the country.  Nottingham Diocese led the way in pioneering academisation in 2011 and the following year the Archdiocese of Birmingham followed suit.  In 2014, Plymouth Diocese became the first diocese in the country to go for total academisation when it formed Plymouth Catholic Association of Schools Trust (CAST), a MAT comprising all 36 of its schools.

Such was the political furore from Gove’s academy revolution that in 2014 David Cameron removed him as Secretary of State for Education but by then he had transformed the education system more than any of his thirty predecessors since the Second World War.  By the time he departed Gove had overseen 5,000 academy conversions but, interestingly, at that stage just 227 Catholic schools were amongst them.  Today there are well over 700 Catholic academies, about a third of the total which is broadly in line with the ratio of conversions nationally.

It was clear from the outset that Oona Stannard was staunchly opposed to the government’s academy policy.  As described, she wrote to all Catholic schools on 17 June 2010 warning them about the dangers of academisation.  Referring to the current strength of the Church’s position in relation to voluntary aided schools she declared: “We would be very unwise to trade this for an uncertain future and a higher level of risk.”  In reality Oona Stannard was swimming against the tide.  She was aware that Bishop McMahon was about to make a historic announcement declaring that Catholic schools, with the approval of their diocesan bishop, could academise.  On 17 January 2011, she made a final intervention suggesting to the government that the Church would be interested in maintaining a financial stake in the new ‘voluntary’ academies in a similar way to traditional voluntary aided schools.  It appears she was not speaking for the Bishops’ Conference.  Bishop McMahon’s announcement eleven days later made no reference to a financial contribution from the Church.  Catholic academies were to be 100% funded by the state just like their counterparts underlining further the departure from the dual system.

Oona Stannard’s position was fatally undermined by the policy of the Church of England.  Whereas in a previous era they had stood shoulder to shoulder with the CES in resisting GM schools, on the issue of academies they parted company.  The Church of England was keen to expand its involvement in secondary schools in particular and it saw academisation as an opportunity.  It embraced the policy with enthusiasm from the outset.  In doing so it weakened the Catholic Church’s political leverage with the government, a position which it has never recovered.

Changes at the Catholic Education Service
In January 2012,  Oona Stannard announced her departure from the CES.  On 4 November 2011, Fr Marcus Stock (as he was then) had been appointed Interim Director of the Catholic Education Service.  In so doing he combined his new role with his existing post as General Secretary to the Bishops’ Conference.  In 2009, Fr Marcus had followed Archbishop Vincent in his move from Birmingham to Westminster.  In 2012, he was made a Prelate of Honour by Pope Benedict before being appointed Bishop of Leeds in 2014.  In April 2013, he had been able to relinquish his acting role on the permanent appointment of Paul Barber as Director of the CES, the post he still holds today.  Paul Barber had previously been the Director of Education for the Archdiocese of Westminster and now returned to the CES, where he had worked before, this time as Director.

Oona Stannard’s position on academisation was clear but she had lost the argument.  With the benefit of hindsight a decade later there are many who might reflect that her warning of “an uncertain future and a higher level of risk” was prescient.  Bishop McMahon’s announcement was the pragmatic option.  It reflected the realpolitik of the Church at that time.  The Bishops’ Conference was not united and neither were diocesan directors of education.  Each diocese was free to go its own way as the hierarchy exercised their individual canonical authority.  It allowed for diocesan independence but collectively it was disastrous for the Church at national level.  In practical terms there ceased to be a ‘One Church’ policy and the role and relevance of the Catholic Education Service was hugely diminished.  The government was now strongly in the driving seat and individual dioceses had to respond according to the local circumstances that prevailed at the time.

As described, Bishop McMahon was the pioneer within the hierarchy of academisation during his time in Nottingham.  By a strange quirk of fate in 2014 he was appointed as Archbishop of Liverpool and in so doing he inherited a diocese firmly opposed to academisation.  His predecessor in Liverpool, Archbishop Kelly had been staunchly opposed to academisation as he had been to GM schools as Bishop of Salford in a previous era.  Archbishop McMahon accepted the settled position of his new diocese which was the only one of the nineteen in England to have an explicit anti-academy policy.  In 2019, Archbishop McMahon was elected Vice President of the Bishops’ Conference and stepped down from his role as Chairman of the CES.  He was succeeded by Bishop Marcus Stock who previously had held the post of Interim Director.  It was an organisation with which Bishop Marcus was very familiar.

The Catholic Education Service and Academies
A visitor to the CES website seeking clarity on the Church’s policy regarding academies will be disappointed.  There is no mention of any kind of the flagship policy the government has pursued for over a decade that has transformed the national education system.  The reason is very simple.  Neither the Bishops’ Conference nor the CES has anything to say on the issue.  The fact is that the Catholic academy policy in England comes in nineteen different varieties.  In Nottingham and Plymouth every school is an academy.  In Liverpool, Lancaster and Salford there are virtually none.  In Birmingham, Hallam and Middlesbrough a narrow majority of schools are academies.  In most of the rest a substantial minority of schools are academies.  In short, the Church is all over the place on the key educational issue of the day.  Since Bishop McMahon’s announcement in 2011 the Bishops’ Conference has never collectively discussed the issue and the Church has had nothing to say publicly.  Other than the update on academisations in each diocese  from the annual census the Catholic Education Service is silent.  It speaks of how diminished a role the Church now plays in national educational policy.  Academies represent the starkest example of the missing Catholic voice in the English education system but it is by no means the only one.   

The Catholic Education Service – Staffing and Priorities
Paul Barber in his introduction to the most recent CES annual report listed on its website (2019) refers to three principal workstreams - legal support; education policy; and public affairs.  These three broad areas of responsibility are reflected in the roles and responsibilities of the fifteen CES officers listed.  Paul Barber is a barrister by training and there are three additional legal specialists; a team of five education advisers; four officers assigned to public affairs; and two staff responsible for IT and office functions.  If one looks at the education team one officer is responsible for RE, another for HE and a third for Wales.  Just two education advisers are focused on schools in England.

The first impression is what a remarkably small team there is at the CES.  It is far smaller than the team at the DES in Birmingham or any large diocese and those offices are exclusively focused on education.  The CES is mandated to fulfil three huge functions and they appear to be doing it with a skeleton staff.  To expect two staff to provide meaningful educational advice and support to the Bishops’ Conference and nineteen English dioceses is fanciful.  In its Strategic Plan 2019-2021 the CES outlines four ‘Principal Objectives’ in its core work of representing the bishops one of which is to ‘assist the Bishops’ Conference to develop policy on Catholic education’.  In its annual report (2019) it is difficult to see in practical terms what the CES did to assist the Bishops’ Conference.  We have seen that it has not been able to advise the bishops on the key policy of academisation for a decade.  The reality is the CES has neither the capacity nor the expertise to provide meaningful educational advice and support to the Bishops’ Conference or to the twenty two dioceses of England and Wales.

The Ethical Leadership Commission and Section 48 Inspections
In January 2019, an important report was published entitled ‘Navigating the Educational Moral Maze’.  It was the result of the work of the Ethical Leadership Commission which had been set up in 2017 and involved eleven education organisations including the Church of England’s Education Department.  Sadly, there is no reference to the CES at all.  The need for such a commission arose from a widespread view amongst educational leaders that the education system in its current form is deeply amoral and there is a desperate need for clear guidelines about what ethical leadership might look like.  The report states that it based its work on St Matthew’s Gospel 7:12 “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.”  It identifies seven characteristics of ethical leadership and describes them as ‘virtues’.  They are Trust, Wisdom, Kindness, Justice, Service, Courage, Optimism.  The Commission comprised eighteen members including the CEO of the Church of England Education Department but alas no Catholic representative.  The report concludes with the bold statement: “We have looked long and hard at the service we offer our children and concluded that accountability is not enough; we have to do good.”

It is difficult to imagine a contribution in the public square of education that is more authentically ‘Catholic’ than the report of the Ethical Leadership Commission.  And yet the Catholic Church and its designated agency, the CES is not involved in any way.  Fortunately, the Commission makes clear that it will continue to meet twice a year in the future as the ‘Ethics Forum’ and is open to other organisations joining them.  It is an invitation the CES should accept as soon as possible.

The work of the Ethical Leadership Commission highlights the shortcomings of the Church’s current Section 48 inspection framework.  A new framework has been approved by the Bishops’ Conference for implementation in September 2021 but like previous versions it omits the vital element of ethical leadership.  A school can be judged outstanding in all three areas of a Section 48 inspection (Catholic Life, RE, Collective Worship) and yet be completely unethical in its practice.  A sound judgement of the ‘Catholicity’ of a Catholic school needs to consider in detail how it is led, managed and governed.

A Section 48 inspection should look closely at areas such as admissions, exclusions, examinations and staffing.  Is the school’s admissions policy administered fairly and transparently with due regard to the needs of neighbouring schools?  How many permanent and temporary exclusions are there?  Is the school open to participating in ‘sharing panels’ and accepting challenging pupils from other schools?  Does the school avoid the practice of ‘off rolling’?  Is every pupil entered for appropriate examinations?  Is the curriculum designed for the needs of its pupils rather than the school’s position in league tables?  Does the school recruit staff ethically?  Does the school engage with trade unions in an open and positive way?  Is the school a ‘Living Wage’ employer?  All of these and others are important and pertinent questions related to the ethical leadership of a school.  They need to be answered before any reliable assessment can be made about the effectiveness of the school in delivering its Catholic mission.  The Catholic Education Service should now seek to integrate the work of the Ethical Leadership Commission into the mainstream life of every Catholic school and ensure it is central to the statutory inspection framework.

The Catholic Education Service Employment Policies
For most Catholic schools the work of the CES is most apparent in the documentation it provides in relation to the employment of staff.  In particular, it provides five model policies related to Appraisal, Capability, Discipline, Grievance and Sickness Absence.  In practice schools need many more policies than these five generic ones and for those they will generally adopt policies from their Local Authority irrespective of whether they are an LA school or an academy.  Catholic schools will be aware there is a considerable difference between the policies of the CES and those of the LA. 

The CES policies are prefaced with an opening paragraph to the employer which it instructs should be removed from the text when it has been adopted.  It makes clear that although the policy has been subject to ‘consultation’ with the national trades unions it has not been ‘agreed’ with them.  This is a major problem.  The CES provides policies to Catholic schools which are legally compliant but they have not been through the process of negotiation with the teacher and support staff unions.  Every local authority in the country has a Joint Negotiation Committee (JNC) in which it discusses draft policies with the unions and seeks to agree them with the union side.  The unions have the opportunity to provide feedback from their members on the effectiveness of the policies in practice and to propose amendments through a regular review process.  Over time local authority policies tend to be acceptable to both sides because they have been ‘road tested’ in classrooms and schools by leaders and staff.

CES employment policies are devised by lawyers in London who ensure that they are legally compliant by meeting ACAS requirements but they have no idea whether they are effective in schools because they have no means of gathering feedback.  They do not meet union representatives but simply send them directly to dioceses and schools for implementation.  The policies claim they seek to “ensure that the principles of Catholic social teaching in relation to human dignity in work become embedded in every aspect of school life and these policies are reviewed regularly in this regard.”  Despite the rhetoric there is a salutary reality.  CES employment policies are designed to protect the interests of the employer and are heavily skewed against the best interests of the employee.  

Until 2016 when there was a central directive to adopt CES policies, the Archdiocese of Birmingham was a beacon of good practice.  From the 1980s onwards it ran its own JNC with all the recognised teacher unions and produced a suite of agreed policies for implementation in Catholic schools across thirteen local authorities.  It was widely appreciated by headteachers, governors and unions alike.  It is a practice that should be adopted by all twenty two dioceses in England and Wales as soon as possible.          

Responding to the Pandemic
The Catholic Education Service has said very little since Covid 19 descended on the world ten months ago.  Its most recent statement by Paul Barber in May 2020 related to the reopening of schools in September.  The Church itself has largely confined its public comments to places of worship remaining open and has been much more strident on this issue than its Church of England, Jewish and Muslim counterparts.  Many thousands of Catholics have discovered and treasure an alternative method of worship by attending Mass online and a lot may continue to do so once the pandemic has passed.  Whilst it is true that keeping churches open would be seen as an important issue by many Catholics very few would suggest it is the most important priority.  The NHS, care homes, school meals, poverty, foodbanks, loneliness, mental health, homelessness, unemployment, inequality, racism and domestic violence are all huge social issues that have been cruelly highlighted by the pandemic.  And yet collectively it has not been the voice of the Churches on social issues that has been heard by the general public.  It has been celebrities like Marcus Rashford and Joe Wicks that have made a huge impact alongside hitherto unknown heroes like Captain Sir Tom Moore.  By focusing exclusively on the issue of places of worship remaining open the Church risks appearing to be tone deaf not just to the general public but to the laity as well.

There have been many criticisms of the government’s response to the pandemic but there is a widespread consensus that it is in the area of education that it has failed most consistently and profoundly.  The examinations fiasco in English schools in August 2020 was widely predicted and, therefore, all the less excusable;  Marcus Rashford has repeatedly embarrassed the government on school meals; promised laptops have not been delivered; and now a second examinations fiasco in 2021 beckons.  It is little wonder that school leaders and staff are demoralised by the ineptitude of those responsible for the running the education system and it is incumbent on those who represent them to make the point clearly and consistently.

On 17 December 2020, to general astonishment all secondary schools in England were informed that in the first week of January they would be responsible for administering Covid tests to all staff and students in Years 11 and 13.  Within 24 hours a joint letter from unions and education organisations had been sent in reply to the Secretary of State making it clear the proposal, since withdrawn, was unrealistic, unworkable and unacceptable.  Amongst the signatories to the letter was the Chief Education Officer of the Church of England.  No doubt the CES was not invited to participate but once again the Catholic voice was missing on an important educational issue.  It would have been reassuring if the many thousands of staff who work in Catholic schools had witnessed the public support of the Church at a time of huge stress and uncertainty.

A New Approach Is Urgently Needed
It is clear that the Catholic Education Service is failing in its core purpose.  It does not have the capacity or the expertise to provide educational advice and support to the Bishops’ Conference  or to the individual dioceses and hence its title has become a misnomer.  Since 1988 the British education system had become a complex and fast changing world but throughout the 1990s the Church held its own.  In 1991 in response to a question from Cardinal Hume a government minister declared publicly at a packed conference: “When the Cardinal speaks, the Government listens.”

In 1997 it produced the widely acclaimed ‘The Common Good in Education’ which was a powerful statement of the Church’s position.  Sadly, since the millennium the CES has diminished hugely in influence and since 2010, like diocesan education services, has been overwhelmed by events beyond its control.

The decline of the Catholic Education Service is certainly not the fault of any individual or team who have worked for it.  It is the inevitable consequence of a structure that is no longer fit for purpose.  As described in a previous paper that I wrote  (part two) I believe the Bishops’ Conference needs to be advised by a National Catholic Schools Commissioner of the highest calibre.  In my paper I argue that person in turn needs to be supported by a  leadership team of six additional commissioners with executive authority to lead the Catholic education system.  Unless the Bishops’ Conference grasps the nettle and adopts a ‘One Church’ approach to education the present decline will continue and lead to the collapse of the system as a whole.  Within this new structure the CES would relinquish its responsibility for education and would focus on its other two workstreams, legal support and public affairs.  It would also continue to administer the annual census which is an excellent and invaluable service it provides for the Catholic education community.  Within the new structure the renamed CES would be led by a Commissioner reporting to the NCSC.

In the 1980s many committed school leaders yearned for a national organisation that would help them to secure, protect and improve the Catholic education system.  The creation of the Catholic Education Service in April 1991 following Bishop Lindsay’s report was a considerable achievement.  Similarly, the formation of CATSC in 1996 was a sign of hope to many committed Catholic teachers around the country.  The 1990s was a period of momentous change in the education system but it was also an era of excitement and expectation.  Thirty years after its present incarnation the CES in its current form has run its course.  Today we live in very different times.  Michael Gove’s academy revolution and the Church’s response to it has effectively destroyed the dual system in which Catholic education flourished for over sixty years.  The Covid 19 pandemic has cruelly exposed the inadequacy of the Church and its designated education agencies in responding to the needs of its schools.

It is time for the Bishops’ Conference to lead the Catholic education community in devising a new way forward.  They do not need to provide all the answers but they must be open to a wide and honest debate with the laity about a new course that will indeed secure, protect and improve our schools.  We are blessed in the thousands of inspirational leaders and dedicated staff who live out their vocation every day in the most challenging circumstances on the front line in our schools.  It is time for their voices to be heard and their experience to be respected.  If that happens we can look forward to a new beginning similar to 1944 and the dual system that secured the Catholic education system in our lifetimes.  On that occasion it was the government that the Church needed to convince.  Today it is ourselves.  The future is in our own hands.

Jim Foley
January 2021





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