What school finance teams need to know as government removes barriers for church-led academies

It’s been known for some time that the government wants all schools to become part of multi-academy trusts (MATs).

The legislation that was due to force that change was dropped at the end of last year. However, the government still insisted that making every school part of a strong “family of schools” was the way to high standards.

Now, the Department for Education has reaffirmed its enthusiasm for MATs by reviving one of the elements of its abandoned Schools Bill. The development relates to church schools and removes a key barrier to them joining or forming academies.

How is the government encouraging church schools to join MATs?

Church schools are currently treated differently from local authority-controlled schools when it comes to becoming academies.

If church schools academise and then move sites, the local council only has to give the academy trust a 125-year lease on the new premises, whereas council-controlled schools have to be given the land freehold.

The Department for Education had proposed in its Schools Bill of 2022 that this difference in treatment should be ended. Although the Schools Bill was withdrawn at the end of last year, the government has revived this particular measure by way of an amendment to its own Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill.

The upshot is that all academies will get to keep the freehold for new sites, in return for handing over the old ones or paying councils the proceeds from the sales.

The move has been welcomed by the Church of England and Catholic Church.

Paul Barber, director of the Catholic Education Service, said: “The legislation will help to ensure the church’s mission in education is protected as schools move toward a multi-academy trust model.”

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How many church schools are already in MATs?

The Church of England can already claim to be the biggest provider of academies in the UK.

Latest data, for January 2022, shows it had 1,590 academies, up four per cent on the previous year. Academies account for around 35 per cent of Church of England Schools and there are 280 C of E MATs.

Academisation of Catholic schools is moving much faster. As of January last year, there were Catholic academies, up 17 per cent on 2021, representing around 44 per cent of Catholic schools. There were 77 Catholic MATs.

Will church schools have to become part of MATs?

There’s no compulsion for schools to join MATs, but church education leaders are conscious that academies are the direction of travel.

The Catholic church has been particularly active in promoting academy status. As far back as 2020, the Catholic Diocese of Westminster said it was “requiring” schools to join trusts, describing academisation as “the diocesan plan to save Catholic education”.

The Church of England has not been as vocal about academising its schools, but has said it is working with government to support diocesan boards as they develop “families of church schools”.

Will all schools be forced to join MATs?

While the Schools Bill has been scrapped, this latest move confirms that ministers are still keen on the policies that were in it.

That means schools need to address the reality that MATs are the future, as far as ministers are concerned.

For most schools, preparing to join or create a MAT means an overhaul of structures and systems – including the finance function.

The accounting software being used in thousands of individual school sites across the country will not be up to the job. Upgrading will bring big savings in staff time, as well as relieving a major source of stress and providing leaders with the up-to-date data they need to make the best decisions. Government guidance has already said that MAT chief executives should be aware of the benefits of cloud-based systems.

Find out more about iplicit and how our award-winning cloud accounting software can help MATs.

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