History, Origins & Inception.
Pre-1996. The Diocese of Plymouth has always desired that its schools should feel a strong sense of ‘family’ and of being an expression of the diocesan Church. However, their geographical spread and legal separation (as individual, autonomous VA schools) always created a potential vulnerability to losing their sense of the collegial Catholic mission. However, this vulnerability was mitigated by other factors such as the strong presence of parish clergy (often the parish priest was Chair of Governors) as well as large numbers of religious Sisters and Brothers – many of whom had been the original founders of the schools or the driving force in their development. In these circumstances, the distinctive nature of the schools and the feeling of being part of a wider diocesan family was easier to maintain. However, by the 1980s and 90s, the number of active religious was reducing significantly. In addition, the workload on diocesan priests and the increasing responsibilities of school governance was also resulting in a reduced presence in the schools.
Pre-2010. When Michael Bovill was appointed the first lay diocesan Director of Schools in 1996, a big part of his brief was to help strengthen the diocesan schools network and reinvigorate their Catholic identity. However, Local Authorities (LAs) remained the conduit for school budgets and were financed to take the lead in the majority of school improvement support. As a result, most of the external influence on Catholic schools came from these secular bodies. Priorities across LAs, as well as policy and practice, were formed entirely on the basis of secular values and often did not reflect the gospel-orientation that should underpin all aspects of a Catholic school. Michael Bovill and his team worked with schools to support them both professionally and pastorally but also to challenge them to keep their Catholic nature at the heart of all they did. Under his guidance, local and diocesan Catholic network structures were developed with the aim of increasing connectedness between the schools and with their parish communities.
When John Mannix was appointed as Michael Bovill's successor in 2001, he continued to help strengthen the 'community of schools' mentality and the commitment to Catholic distinctiveness. However, this was still in the face of a strong influence from secular bodies (LAs, central government and Ofsted) and within a largely secular national agenda. Continuing Michael's work, John and his team worked closely with LA partners to help sensitise them to the aspirations of Church schools and to help formulate policy that was properly informed by the full diversity of school provision. Important partners in this work, of course, were the Church of England diocesan schools teams, especially those of Truro, Exeter and Salisbury dioceses. While differing aspirations and emphases occasionally caused tensions, overwhelmingly the relationships between the churches and the Local Authorities were very positive, as all concerned shared a desire to offer the best possible education to the children in their care.
The Academies Act 2010. When Michael Gove's Academies Bill was introduced in 2010, the general view held across the Catholic dioceses of England and Wales was that academisation would be a negative departure from Voluntary Aided status. However, in Plymouth Diocese, John Mannix saw within the Bill an opportunity to secure the mission of the schools. In July 2010, shortly before the Bill became law, John made a presentation to the diocesan trustees about how academisation could serve their mission. He suggested that individual schools should not be allowed to convert because, at that time, this simply gave financial benefits to the better performing schools and left others more vulnerable. It was also recognised that even the current high performers could not be guaranteed always to be strong and yet academisation meant removing their Local Authority safety net. However, he argued that if government could be persuaded to accept all diocesan schools, strong and weak alike, the policy would strengthen Catholic provision. Support funding formerly given to the secular bodies would be transferred to the diocesan schools but in a way that meant it could be managed collectively. Thus, the LA safety net would be replaced by a diocesan one and policy and practice could now be driven from a Church perspective. The trustees gave their approval to making the further evaluation of this option a major emphasis in the work of the diocesan Vicariate for Formation.
Persuading DFE. From the start, the proposal that would eventually become Plymouth CAST was a non-standard application of the government's academy notion - at least as it was conceived at the time. In the DFE’s eyes, this diocesan trust:
- was too big - both the geographical area and the number of schools were far larger than they had conceived;
- proposed different acceptance criteria for conversion - only schools judged Outstanding by Ofsted were allowed to convert in 2010 but this diocesan proposal included all schools;
- included additional internal structures (such as Area Councils) missing from government templates.
Therefore, the first year of the project was spent trying to reach agreement with Department for Education (DFE) officials over a non-standard Articles of Association for the proposed trust. At the same time, informal conversations were taking place across the schools network about what such a model might mean and what advantages it might bring. In the early stages, the schools' experience as largely autonomous bodies made many of them anxious about losing their autonomy within a larger organisation. Discussions continued about how the model could preserve local decision-making at the same time as bringing the stability benefits of being part of a larger organisation.
Having reached agreement in principle with DFE, the following year (2011-2012) saw the focus of work change to a detailed structural analysis of how the proposed company would operate. Local meetings were held in different parts of the Diocese to involve governors and head teachers in discussion about the organisational design.
Saunton Sands Conference 2013. This phase of the project culminated in a diocesan conference held at the Saunton Sands Hotel in North Devon in late January 2013. Representatives from all diocesan maintained schools were present including governors, head teachers and school administrators/business managers. They were supported by Bishop Christopher Budd, Fr Robert Draper (Vicar General), Fr Gerard Wilberforce (Episcopal Vicar for Formation) staff of both the Vicariate for Formation and the Vicariate for Administration, legal support from members of Tozers and insurance specialists from Coleman’s. Together the conference considered issues of staff transfers; financial models; governance; legal framework; local and central structures. The two-day conference was key to the development of the project. The work so far had been completed almost entirely by Vicariate for Formation staff but the next steps would need a real commitment from every school.
The Project Board. The Saunton Conference ended with agreement to proceed and those gathered identified representatives from all areas of the Diocese to operate as a Project Board. This Board continued to meet (usually bi- or tri-weekly) to oversee the project from then until the end of 2013, when it was superseded by the newly formed Board of Directors of the company.
The period from February ‘13 saw the most intense work in developing and testing the model and ensuring that it was a secure home for all the schools. The DFE insisted in detailed analyses of all schools to satisfy itself that CAST could deliver on its aspirations. Extensive legal work had to be undertaken and every aspect of the new company needed to be designed and costed. Without any of the intended infrastructure in place, the company was officially registered in March 2013 and the first school to convert, St Nicholas Catholic Primary in Exeter, became its first constituent on May 1st 2013. After thousands of hours work on the part of many people, the DFE was ready to consider the remaining schools for Academy Orders but continued to challenge the organisational model. By this time, Theodore Agnew had become Chairman of the DFE’s Academy Board and, after reviews of all relevant documentation and meetings with John Mannix and Anthony Akinpelu (the diocesan Oeconomus) declared himself in support and ready to propose the full CAST model to the DFE's Sponsor Board. Academy Orders for the majority of remaining schools were signed in late December 2013 and the last ones in the following months.
Conversion Day. Finally, on the 1st April 2014, nearly four years since the proposal had first been mooted, 34 schools converted into Plymouth CAST to join St Nicholas’, Exeter, and the full company began its formal operation.