What do you want to achieve?
What relationship do school and diocese want for the future?
Dioceses and schools will work constructively with schools on this issue. Approaches range from total support, come what may, through to dioceses considering single diocesan companies for academies with consequent substantial economies of scale for back-up and administrative services and (since this would result in a single budget) greater flexibility and ability to face emergencies together.
Care must be taken with technical issues like consolidation of academy and DBE accounts in such models. Dioceses with existing Service Level Agreements appear to be looking to build on these. Dioceses without SLAs (or with minimal ones) seem less certain and their schools may not have much concept of buying services from the diocese. Regionalisation of services and cross-border academy companies are being talked of and are possible. This will become an area for major local and national discussion.
This is inevitably a political question and schools must be alert to the difficult position their DBE and DDE might be in caught between the demands of the school and the LA. Regional political differences may well be marked on this issue. It appears that significant numbers of schools are converting and the government is determined to encourage conversion. Dioceses and schools must look seriously at the LA relationship and attempt to act as a bridge if possible. Some LAs will welcome that.
This should be discussed at diocesan and school level now. If there is a delay, it is possible that (a) other people will develop groups and entice Church schools into them with consequent difficulties for ensuring ethos and character (b) schools will not think of groups as a serious possibility unless they are offered one or are already in one such as a Federation. This is a good time to look seriously at groups, amongst other reasons in order to protect small rural primary schools which could flourish in carefully constructed groups.
Groups do not have to be under a single academy company. Several academy companies (perhaps with overlapping membership) could contract to work together. This would resemble Collaboration Regulations, though the actual Regulations would not apply. The academy companies could agree to work together much as they wished. This kind of group can work for situations where some academies are Church of England, some without designation and some perhaps with other religious characters. Joint Academies are possible with a single joint company such as already exist.
Groups can be cross-phase or single phase. There might be real possibilities for groups of Church of England Primary schools converting together so that economies of scale and mutual support are maximised. The model will also allow for a non-church school to join such a group, either with a company of its own, or accepting that the church company will look after it. This would be a bit like affiliated schools and could be a very positive development. There are community secondary schools wanting to become Church of England academies (as a number have done in the past). This requires the school to close and re-open before becoming an academy, but could be achieved post-conversion by the inclusion of such a school in a Church of England multi-academy company. There is a version of the Memorandum and Articles that allows for this.
This can be done most easily by the academy company having a majority of Church of England members as described above. Otherwise protections need to be built into the Academy Memorandum and Articles. This is possible but needs to be negotiated individually as local circumstances and wishes differ so much. It is not possible to safeguard ethos and designation at the level of the so-called Local Governing Body in multi-academy companies, as the directors of the academy company will always be able to over-ride. It is easy to safeguard them if the church school has its own company and agrees to collaborate with the others as described above. That is our preferred model if Church schools want to join a group but will be in the minority.
Existing federations, but not collaborations, may apply to convert as one body. If a Church of England school is a member of the Federation it must ensure its own identity. This may require it formally to withdraw temporarily from the Federation in order to re-join the consequent academy group but with its own company. If the other schools with which a church school is collaborating are seeking to convert together, the church school may set up its own company and continue to collaborate. These mechanisms protect the identity of the church school, protect its character and ethos and would not breach the trusts on which the school site is held. All these consequences are possible if other solutions are chosen and dioceses and schools must take legal advice about any possibility of Church of England schools being run by multi-academy companies that do not have a church majority membership.
A model has been developed for a Church of England Multi-Academy Company. As noted above, this could also be a suitable company for academies without any religious designation provided that they were willing to accept the Church majority members and directors.
No model has been developed for multi-academy groups with a majority of non-church academies, as it is the view both of the National Society and the DfE that such companies would need to be developed and agreed on a one-off basis to reflect local wishes and circumstances. Schools thinking of joining such a group must consult their dioceses and legal advisers before agreeing any detailed arrangements.
There is the possibility noted above of several academies, each with their own company (or at least with more than one company) agreeing formally to work together as a single group as though they were schools collaborating. Such structures would also need to be individually worked out but the principles have been developed between the Society’s legal advisers and the DfE. The National Society recommends this model for serious consideration where Church of England academies are in the minority in a proposed group.
None of these models can be imposed on unwilling schools and schools must immediately report to their dioceses (and dioceses to the Society) cases where there is a local attempt to force church schools to join academy companies as minority members, for example by suggesting (illegally) that they would be left out of a secondary school’s admissions arrangements.