Hackney Council has written to the Catholic Church urging it to pause plans to academise six of the borough’s schools, with four of those schools also voicing concern.
The schools are currently maintained by the Town Hall but supported by the church, which also owns the sites.
The Diocese of Westminster’s education service is now set on “beginning the conversation” on transferring the schools into an academy trust independent of the local authority.
The church says the plans are driven by falling pupil numbers, though the council has questioned what difference the change would make to student rolls, while calling for discussions to be delayed until the pandemic has been brought under control.
The proposals, leaked from a letter obtained by the National Association of Head Teachers and sent to schools on 8 January, would affect St Monica’s, St Dominic’s, St Scholastica’s and Our Lady & St Joseph Catholic Primary Schools, along with Cardinal Pole Catholic School and Our Lady’s Catholic High School.
A spokesperson representing Our Lady and St Joseph, St Dominic’s, St Monica’s and St Scholastica’s primaries said: “We were particularly alarmed by the timing of this document in the middle of a global pandemic when schools were facing significant challenges in Hackney.
“We greatly value our partnership, collaboration and work within the community of Hackney schools. We were reassured by a meeting on 10 February when Mr Paul Stubbings [Interim Director of Academisation for the diocese] informed us three times that there would be no ‘forced academisation’.
“As a group of schools we wish to focus all our energies right now on serving our diverse communities and getting children and families back into schools, proper learning and routines. It has been a challenging year and Hackney schools have been very hard hit.
“We need now to resume our core purpose of educating and fostering the well-being and health of our children and families.”
The four schools also expressed their thanks to Hackney Education, and in particular Town Hall director of education Annie Gammon and Deputy Mayor Anntoinette Bramble for their support. The pair, along with group director Anne Canning, wrote on 10 February to the church to “express deep concern over the timing of the current discussion about the future organisation of Catholic schools and the engagement with local authorities so far”.
Cardinal Pole and Our Lady’s school, which are both secondary schools, declined to comment and had not responded by time of going to press.
The Citizen reported back in January that the Town Hall itself is “poised to consider and undertake” primary school closures or permanent intake reductions to tackle falling pupil numbers “in the near future” after the uncertainty surrounding coronavirus has eased.
According to the Town Hall’s School Organisation Plan for the next five years, demand for reception places across the capital has decreased year on year since 2015 for “unclear” reasons.
A statement from the church makes clear that the plans are part of a “broader discussion with schools across the Diocese of Westminster”.
In their 10 February letter, Bramble, Gammon and Canning revealed that at least one local authority has had “no engagement from the Diocese on these plans”, with another council instigating all engagement themselves, while accepting that the timing of the information shared around the Christmas period “was not what [the Diocese] would have chosen”.
The letter adds: “Our headteacher colleagues have been focused on the education and wellbeing of their pupils, staff and their community during this pandemic. Since last February, they have been working in extraordinarily challenging circumstances with a constantly changing remit from the Department for Education.
“We are proud of the way they have risen to this challenge. However, we also know that it is extremely demanding personally and professionally. These demands have been placed upon them for almost a year and look to continue for at least another six months.
“The launch of a widespread intensive discussion about a potentially hugely significant change to their school’s status is not well timed, in our view. We think it is very difficult for governors or headteachers to give this appropriately focused attention during this pandemic period. It is also extremely unsettling for families involved.”
The council has urged the Diocese to confirm that the discussion will be delayed until “after the pandemic is well under control” and when schools have been able to operate in a “steady state” for a number of months, while calling for a further commitment that no governing body will be forced by the board to change the status of their school.
The letter adds: “We are sure that you will agree that forcing an unwilling community to change status is not desirable.”
Deputy Mayor Bramble, who is the Town Hall’s cabinet member for education, added: “Ultimately, we want the six affected schools in Hackney to remain within the local authority family of schools. We do not agree with schools being forced to change their status.
“We are urging the Diocese to delay their discussions until after the pandemic is well under control and until schools have recovered from the significant fallout and impact of the pandemic.”
A spokesperson for the Diocese of Westminster said: “We recognise that our school communities have been making a heroic effort to educate and look after the wellbeing of pupils and their families since the start of the pandemic.
“We are very proud of them and grateful for what they achieve every day in the face of difficult circumstances. We are committed to supporting them both now and in building resilience and a secure future.
“The conversation with schools about academisation is part of a broader discussion with schools across the Diocese of Westminster about building resilience for the future.
“The concerns about falling rolls and the opportunity to strengthen the position of our schools require a full, considered and strategic response in the interest of the wellbeing of our school communities.
“Beginning the conversation now will help us establish a clear way forward for our schools once the pandemic emergency subsides.”