Calm follows bishops' revolt

Clare Dean

If the Churches were celebrating this week, they were doing so quietly. The Government's scrapping of a proposed new aided category of school was viewed as more of an appreciation of the Churches' concerns than a victory.

So was it a climbdown, a hard-won concession in the face of a Parliamentary rebellion by bishops or a genuine response on the part of ministers to consultation over the new framework of schools?

A little more than two weeks ago schools standards minister Stephen Byers was confident of the Government's commitment to three new categories of schools - foundation, aided and community.

"When we respond to the White Paper there will be areas of change, but we will confirm our commitment to those three categories," he told the Association of Aided and Grant-Maintained Schools.

The response from the Government this week was quite different. The aided category had been scrapped and replaced by a new all-encompassing voluntary sector.

This will allow the 6,500 voluntary-aided and voluntary-controlled church schools to keep their existing characteristics and allow the Church to retain a majority of seats on governing bodies.

Voluntary-aided schools will continue to employ their own staff and run their own admissions while in voluntary-controlled schools those responsibilities will remain with the local authority.

Before this week's meeting between Mr Byers, the Bishops of Ripon and Leeds and representatives from the Church of England, Roman Catholics and Methodists there was gloomy talk of the end of the church school system.

The House of Bishops, the most senior Anglican body, made a thinly-disguised threat to use its influence in the Lords to fight proposals if its concerns were not met.

Church authorities feared they would lose control over admissions to their schools if their majority on governing bodies was cut to just one.

Hundreds of voluntary-controlled schools were left with no natural home. The Government had expected them to become foundation schools, the category closest to the soon-to-be-abolished GM sector.

Many of the 2,715 voluntary-controlled schools were unhappy at having to sever historic links with the church and did not want to become foundation schools having previously rejected GMS.

Others said they could not opt for aided status as their parents were unable to raise the 15 per cent contribution an aided school has to make towards capital and maintenance.

The about-turn creates no new places on church school governing bodies but has shifted the emphasis in their make-up, increasing the church majority in primary schools from one to two and in larger secondaries from one to three.

A joint statement issued by Mr Byers and the Churches after this week's meeting, talked of open, positive and constructive dialogue.

And it said: "Substantial progress has been made on the principal areas of concern. We believe that the publication of the Bill will demonstrate how these are to be implemented in practice.

"The Government values the important role played by Church schools. The changes that have been put forward today will preserve the ethos and character of Church schools.

"Our meeting was open, constructive and positive. We now look forward to working together, in order to achieve our shared objective of raising school standards and improving the quality of education."

The Churches now await publication of the Bill, due on November 18, to study the small-print to determine exactly how much notice the Government has taken of their views.

But Margaret Smart, education director of the Catholic Education Service, said: "We all very much appreciate the way in which the Government has listened. It has recognised our concern and moved a long way to understand them. It's not a question of victory but of better understanding of our concerns."

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Clare Dean

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