PLANS to merge dozens of schools in South Yorkshire - including seven in Barnsley - into two new multi-academy trusts are ‘unlawful’, according to education unions.

The Diocese of Hallam, which has 50 schools under its wing in Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham, has applied to form two new Catholic multi-academy trusts.

There are seven schools across the Barnsley region which are under its wing - Holy Rood Catholic Primary School, Holy Trinity, Sacred Heart Catholic Primary School, St Helen’s Catholic Primary School, St Michael’s and All Angels Catholic Primary School, St Pius X High School and St Mary’s Catholic Primary School.

The only way schools can be forced to become academies is if they are eligible for intervention and none of the schools in Hallam are currently in this category.

The Secretary of State can only issue an academy order on the application of the governing body of the school - but governing bodies for 19 schools have said they did not agree to begin the process.

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Unions representing staff in schools across the Catholic Diocese of Hallam have now written to the Secretary of State for Education to begin legal action over letters they received informing them they would be ‘forced’ to join multi-academy trusts.

Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, has blasted the ‘underhand’ tactics.

“To realise an ambition to have more schools in multi-academy trusts, the Secretary of State and the Diocese must present a compelling case to schools,” he added.

“That is very different from a case of compulsion.

“Becoming an academy can be a positive step for some schools but it is only the governing body and leaders of a school that can truly understand if joining a Multi-Academy Trust will bring benefit to pupils.

“The Education Secretary has said that he supports a system with a variety of different school types.

“This must be upheld for all schools in the Diocese of Hallam.

“Actions that lack transparency and have been viewed as underhand will fail to win the hearts and minds of educators who truly do have the interests of the young people in their care at the forefront of their deliberations.

“When the legislation and processes that exist to ensure reasonable treatment are ignored or abused, unions have no choice but to challenge those actions through the courts.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the association of school and college leaders, has urged for the plans to be stopped.

He said: “We are deeply concerned by what appears to be an abuse of the process of schools becoming academies.

“It is perfectly clear that the decision must come from governing bodies and yet this appears to have been flagrantly ignored. “Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi must intervene and put a stop to this sorry episode.”

The Department for Education has ‘paused’ the bid to turn the schools into academies following the launch of legal action because governors had not signed off the plan.

The Chronicle understands the diocese will continue to work closely with its schools as the department prepare for the academy transfer before Easter.