Wednesday, 27 June 2012 14:31

Decision time for Catholic Academies

The Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, is keen that all schools an England should become Academies as soon as possible. Academy status, he argues, will give schools more freedom and autonomy to make their own educational decisions in pursuit of higher standards and provide more funding to achieve those standards. For some existing schools ‘in difficulty’ it will provide ‘new start’ opportunities.

The Catholic Education Service has advised that the decision for or against Academy status is to be a matter for Catholic schools to decide, ‘subject to the wishes of their Bishop, Trustees and Governing Body’.

Across the Catholic community in England debates are taking place among bishops, trustees, school governors, school leaders, teachers and parents about what response should be made to this new government policy.

In the pages of The Tablet Mike Craven, Chairman of Governors at Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School in London has recently written an article called ‘Bring on Catholic Academies’.

Mike is a strong advocate for change arguing that:-

‘The financial incentives for Catholic schools have been improved with 100 per cent capital funding for Catholic academies compared with 90 per cent for Voluntary – Aided schools’. He also claims that, ‘there is considerable enthusiasm for academy status among schools, heads, teachers and parents. They relish the freedoms that the new status confers - not being bound by the national curriculum, the ability to vary staff terms and conditions and the right to manage their affairs without interference from the town hall’.

At a recent Catholic education conference which I attended, there were participants who supported Mike’s argument, seeing the Academies initiative as a golden opportunity to strengthen Catholic education in various ways. However, there were also critics of the idea. The Academy sceptics raised questions such as. ‘are there disadvantages in accepting 100% funding from a government?’ Their argument was that the 90% relationship keeps the Catholic Church as a Partner with Government in the provision of education. The 100% relationship makes the government (any government) the sole Paymaster. They also questioned the power to vary staff terms and conditions on a school by school basis, as likely to produce staff discontent rather than improve morale.

Some were worried that Academy status seemed to encourage schools to pursue their individual good in education, whereas the Catholic position was supposed to be commitment to the common good in education.

Modern governments everywhere are constantly calling for rapid decision-making in an attempt to show how ‘dynamic’ their administrations are. We live in an age of fast communication, fast talking, fast decision-making  which is equated with modernity and efficiency.

However, Catholic wisdom in decision-making has deeper historical and theological importance roots. We know the value of prayer and reflection, of careful discernment of opposing arguments, of remembering our basic value positions. 

One of the best statements of Catholic values in education was made by the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales in their publication, The Common Good in Education (1997). Every statement of Catholic values made in this document needs to be considered, but especially relevant for the Academies question are the following: - 

•‘no school or college is ‘an island entire of itself.’ It means that no governing body, no individual group of parents has the right to disregard the good of another institution, while promoting the good of its own school or college’ (p.10) 

•Popular and successful schools should explore ways of working in solidarity with those that are struggling, in particular with those in deprived neighbourhood’ (p. 16) 

If the decision to opt for a particular form of Academy status shows a ‘goodness of fit’ between Catholic values in education and Academy status then it can claim ‘mission integrity’. If it does not, then those making that decision should reflect further on what basis they are using for making that decision. 

These are the issues that all in the Catholic educational community should be considering at this time. It is not a question of ‘Bring on Catholic Academies’, it is a question of ‘Bring on Catholic Values’ before making the decision. 

Professor Gerald Grace is Director of the Centre for Research and Development in Catholic Education (CRDCE), at the University of London, Institute of Education: he is the author of Catholic Schools: Mission Markets and Morality,  RoutledgeFalmer 2002

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