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Church 'losing influence in RC schools'

David Budge finds Catholics worried. The idea that recent Conservative education reforms have bolstered the voluntary-aided sector is a complete myth, according to an authority on Roman Catholic schools.

In fact, he says, the changes introduced since 1979 have seriously eroded the historic rights and responsibilities of the Catholic Church.

Dr James Arthur, of Canterbury Christ Church College, Kent, argues that Roman Catholic bishops have failed to exert any real influence on government thinking or practice over the past 16 years, even though the Catholic Church has more than 2,200 voluntary-aided schools in England and Wales.

Dr Arthur, writing in the Oxford Review of Education, says: "The Government has decided to ignore the traditional pattern of power- sharing in the partnership with the Church.

"The Church is no longer automatically invited as a valued partner to negotiate about government proposals which aim at changing existing education law."

Dr Arthur believes that the Church's position has been badly undermined by the national curriculum, the increasing difficulty in obtaining free transport to Catholic schools, and new regulations on pupil admissions. The Government's policies on teacher training and school inspection have also proved harmful, and the introduction of grant-maintained status - which 87 RC secondaries have now obtained - has presented a "serious threat to the balance and very provision of Catholic voluntary education".

The weakening of the partnership between state and church has meant that the trustees of voluntary-aided Catholic schools have lost much of their power, Dr Arthur says. They no longer have the right to appoint two-thirds of a school's governors, they have found that they cannot remove foundation governors who ignore their education policies, and they have been virtually excluded from the opting-out process. Furthermore, trustees have been frustrated by the Government's refusal to allow the expansion of popular voluntary-aided schools when there are surplus places in an area - even though this rule has not applied to grant-maintained schools.

"The Government has also excluded trustees from any formal representation on the funding agencies which it has created," Dr Arthur writes. "Both the Funding Agency for Schools and the Further Education Funding Council are responsible for former Catholic voluntary-aided schools but Catholic sixth-form colleges were simply incorporated into the FEFC system without any consultation with the trustees."

Dr Arthur is, however, even more concerned about the effect that the national curriculum has had on the voluntary sector. "The aims of Catholic schools are largely determined by non-Catholics. Many Catholic schools are increasingly marked by a high degree of formal control emphasising selection and competition that are linked to future career opportunities and potential social status, " he says. "This is a highly secular approachIwhich conflicts with the Church's view of education, which is that it be provided not to gain power or material prosperity but to serve others."

Teacher education is another area where the Church has been unable to sway government thinking. The bishops have been told that RC colleges cannot expect a particular share of the public-sector initial teacher training intake. Dr Arthur says: "The link between teacher training numbers and Catholic school vacancies has, as a direct consequence of government policy, been broken. "

Another unwritten agreement that is now only partly honoured is that if necessary, free transport will be provided when parents opt for a school on religious grounds. Since 1980 an increasing number of local authorities have stopped offering free transport. But the Government has refused to intervene, claiming it is a matter entirely for individual LEAs.

Dr Arthur also bemoans the fact that Catholic schools now have less control over admissions, which makes it harder to protect their ethos and identity. He said: "Voluntary schools can still insist that admissions be restricted to safeguard identity, but they need to justify this and are required by law to agree it with their LEA, which often has different priorities."

The Catholic authorities are also unhappy that secular inspectors now have the power (under Section 13 of the 1993 Education Act) to comment and report on the quality of spiritual and moral education in their schools.

They were also dismayed by the Government's decision to withdraw the phrase "spiritual and moral education" from the aims of the curriculum in Catholic sixth-form colleges when it removed them from the voluntary-aided sector.

Dr Arthur said: "These examples illustrate how government action and legislation have adversely affected the distinctiveness of Catholic schools and colleges. There are, in addition, many other areas, such as assessment of pupils, the appraisal of teachers and formula funding of schools which directly and indirectly impinge on the distinctiveness of Catholic education."

The full text of Dr Arthur's paper, which appears in the December issue of the Oxford Review of Education, is available, priced Pounds 10 including pp, from Carfax Publishing Company, PO Box 25, Abingdon, Oxfordshire OX14 3UE.

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