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University report highlights inequalities amongst UK faith schools

An independent report, conducted by the University of Wolverhampton (@wlv_uni), highlights serious concerns about potential inequality for minority faith schools in the UK and has concluded that Roman Catholic (RC) and Church of England (CofE) schools seem to enjoy additional protection via a Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) agreed with the Department for Education (DfE) and benefit from an extra level of support that is not available to other faith schools and academies.

Commissioned to independently and fairly investigate two Termination Notices delivered to Sikh faith schools from September 2017 to August 2020, the report raises concerns about the protection afforded to only RC and CofE schools by these MoU and the transparency of the rebrokerage process. Re-brokerage is a term used where an Academy Trust is asked by the Regional School Commissioners (RSC), who act on behalf of the DfE on a regional basis, to transfer one, some or all of its academies to a different Academy Trust.

The MoU, both agreed in 2016, requires a high level of cooperation between the DfE and RC Dioceses, and between the DfE and the CofE. The DfE is expected to share information with the Dioceses at the earliest opportunity about concerns regarding underperforming schools and seek consent from the Dioceses before taking action on converting to academy status, intervention, re-brokerage or issuing termination notices or warnings.

However, no such Memorandum of Understanding exists between the DfE and minority faith bodies, therefore there is no such expectation on the DfE to share information, nor to seek the consent of faith representatives before decisions to convert or re-broker schools rated as Inadequate through Ofsted.

Critically, the report raised a need both for greater clarity and an enhanced understanding of the seeming lack of equality for all schools whose Trusts do not have an MoU with the DfE.

The report examined the frequency of Termination Notices handed to Sikh schools in comparison to those schools with an MoU in place. Only two Termination Notices were issued to Inadequate rated faith academies (out of 135) in the period September 2017 – August 2020. These Termination Notices were both issued to Sikh schools. No other termination notices were sent to any other faith academies in this same period and of the 45 Catholic schools rated inadequate, none were re-brokered.

The report goes into significant detail comparing actions taken by the Regional School Commissioners between the treatment of a Sikh school (Khalsa Secondary Academy – KSA) and a similarly rated Roman Catholic school who were graded as inadequate by Ofsted within a six-week period.

The report examined a lack of consistency in the level of Notice sent to schools and academies following an Inadequate grading. It revealed that the Roman Catholic school was only given the lowest warning despite failing to make progress over 26 months. Whereas the Sikh school was given a Termination Notice less than 4 months after receiving a Termination Warning Notice, despite a remote Ofsted section 8 monitoring visit that found no significant concerns. 

Finally, the report raises concerns around the re-brokerage process. The report revealed that there is very little evidence to support the DfE’s assumption that re-brokerage is effective in raising standards, and what research exists appears inconclusive.

Non-Christian faith schools are increasing in the UK but at the moment remain very much in the minority; combined, they comprise less than 1% of all state-funded mainstream schools. The report looked in particular at a number of Sikh schools which are standing as examples of potentially unequal practice: they (like all minority faith schools) have no MoU to potentially support them in access to early interventions, communication and cooperation with the DfE. This report argues for greater clarity in the procedures of the Regional Schools Commissioners, particularly of the criteria used to re-broker schools. In the light of the discussion on the levels of security enjoyed by Church schools through their Memoranda of Understanding, the report also calls for greater understanding of the seeming lack of equality for all schools whose Trusts do not have such an MoU with the DfE, and whether these MoU affect decisions made in children’s interests. 

Dr Matt Smith, Senior Lecturer, University of Wolverhampton said: 

“Our report has highlighted a concerning level of potential inequality primarily caused by Memoranda of Understanding for faith schools without access to the protection offered by such an understanding. The discrepancies seen between the treatment of a Roman Catholic and Sikh faith school compared in the report provide a stark example of this and something we believe should be investigated further by the DfE.

“The process of rebrokerage itself seems ineffective, with little data to support claims to the contrary; however the lack of consideration for nuances of faith in this specific instance was more concerning. Likewise, we found minimal guidance for RSCs around how and when to action the different levels of warnings and sanctions that would lead to this situation, creating a lack of transparency. An additional review of this process and publication of information would help to negate accusations of discrimination.” 

Chair of Board of Trustees for the Khalsa Academies Trust, Shaminder Kaur Rayatt, commented:

“We welcome the findings of this report. We have requested an equivalent MoU for many years and this report formally recognises that there are clear disparities in how Sikh schools have been treated in comparison to schools protected by an MoU. We hope that this report will allow our Academy Trust, and other faith schools without the protection of an MoU, to open up a conversation with the DfE to improve inequalities within the system.

“Our priority is to ensure that we provide the very best education to our students, particularly during lockdown. With that in mind, it is greatly disappointing that time and energy are spent fighting for the same rights as RC and CoE faith schools.”

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