A legal anomaly is stopping Catholic sixth-form colleges from reaping the benefits of academisation. Putting this right would be a simple matter, writes Paul Barber.

In the wider Catholic school sector there are a variety of legal safeguards which protect the distinct character and ethos of Catholic schools – for instance the emphasis put on religious education.

These legal protections have been in place, and have largely stayed the same, since the Butler Act in 1944. When academy legislation was brought in and developed by successive governments, Catholic schools were allowed to keep the same safeguards which protected their Catholic character when they converted from a voluntary-aided school to an academy.

We remain hopeful that this legal anomaly will be resolved

However, because academisation legislation for sixth-form colleges was developed separately from schools, the same safeguards given to schools were omitted for Catholic SFCs – as FE Week reported last week. This was done not out of any malice towards the church, but because of our relative size in the FE sector.

Because the Catholic Church is the largest provider of secondary education and the second largest provider of primary education in the country, accounting for one in 10 of all schools, any academy legislation for schools would naturally have to take into account the uniqueness of our sector. With just 14 Catholic SFCs in England, our sector was simply not big enough to register.

The situation in which this legal anomaly has left the Church is frustrating for several reasons.

It is holding back colleges that want to convert to academies for the VAT boon this would bring, which could be so easily rectified with one line of legislation. Moreover, the Church actually has sixth-form colleges which are academy sponsors for schools whilst being unable to convert themselves.

The Catholic Education Service has a strong working relationship with the Department for Education which is fully aware of the issue and how it is specifically affecting our sector. We remain hopeful that this legal anomaly will be resolved as and when the next piece of education legislation is brought to Parliament.

READ MORE: Catholic sixth-form colleges demand academisation protection

Because of the size of the Catholic school sector in this country, people often overlook the Catholic further and higher education establishments which the Church runs.

As the longest-serving provider of education in the country, the mission of the Church has always been to educate the whole person, allowing them to achieve their best, whatever their best may be.

A key part of this is providing a wide variety of education establishments to help young people succeed throughout the entirety of their academic life.

Much of this has been through the provision of sixth-form education. The vast majority of Catholic sixth forms are attached to existing schools, but there are also 15 standalone Catholic sixth-form colleges – 14 in England and one in Wales.

To this extent, the only standalone SFCs to have a religious character in England are all maintained by the Catholic Church.

Like all other Catholic nurseries, schools, colleges and universities, they have a very distinct character rooted in the Catholic faith.

In addition to its many voluntary aided schools and academies, the Catholic Church also maintains four universities, a variety of teaching schools and 11 special schools for children with severe learning difficulties.

We even have some dioceses which have looked into the prospect of opening a pupil referral unit. The Catholic community is perhaps the most ethnically and socially diverse in the country, and our wide variety of education establishments are there to cater for them all, offering a high-quality education within a distinct Catholic ethos.

Catholic sixth-form colleges have a proven record of success with many being rated either ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted and achieving A-level results significantly above the national average. This success is down to these colleges’ distinct Catholic ethos – something they shouldn’t have to lose if they were to convert to academies.

Paul Barber is director of the Catholic Education Service

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