The Catholic Church is at the center of a legal battle over attempts to force Catholic schools to become academies run by its own multi-academy trusts, against the wishes of governors and headteachers.
A consortium of school staff unions, including the National Association of Head Teachers and the Association of Head Teachers and Colleges, wrote to Nadhim Zahawi, the education secretary, asking him to withdraw the Academy orders issued to a group of Catholic schools by the Department. for Education (DfE) under threat of legal action.
The threat came after the church’s Hallam Diocese asked the DfE to order academy conversions for 19 Catholic denominational schools in the diocese, which covers South Yorkshire and parts of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, including including voluntary schools.
If successful, the order would transform all schools into academies and place them in one of two new multi-academy trusts administered by the diocese, along with academies already members of other trusts.
But unions, including Unison member support staff, say headteachers and governors do not want to change their status and are prepared to seek judicial review in the High Court if Zahawi does not withdraw. not orders.
Schools can only be forced to become academies if they are eligible for intervention, usually if they are deemed inadequate by Ofsted inspectors. None of the schools targeted by the diocese fall into this category. Otherwise, the DfE can only make an academy order if requested by a school’s governing body.
“We understand that the governing bodies of these schools have not sought the secretary of state for academy orders. The ordinances of the academy appear to have been made at the request of and/or at the request of the diocese,” the letter from the unions states.
“The Secretary of State is asked to confirm in writing that the academy orders are null and void.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “We are deeply concerned about what appears to be an abuse of the process of transforming schools into academies. It is abundantly clear that the decision must come from the governing bodies and yet this seems to have been blatantly ignored. Nadhim Zahawi must intervene and put an end to this sad episode.
Other dioceses in England have pushed schools to convert and join approved trusts, including the Diocese of Birmingham, which contains 240 schools, 90 of which retain voluntary aid status.
The DfE and the Diocese of Hallam have been contacted for comment.
In a letter sent to headteachers last year, the Bishop of Hallam, Ralph Heskett, said he had “determined” that Catholic schools in the region would be better supported by becoming academies and joining specific trusts.
“A model of multi-academy Catholic trust across the diocese means that no individual school will be left isolated or vulnerable in this rapidly changing educational environment,” Heskett said.