Church poised to lose its flock

Clare Dean & Dorothy Lepkowska

With the Government intent on abolishing the grant-maintained sector, what does the future hold for schools which opted for independence under the Conservatives? Clare Dean and Dorothy Lepkowska report on the results of a TES survey

Church ambitions to retain control of their schools which opted out are increasingly unlikely to be realised, a TES survey has established.

A fifth of grant-maintained aided schools have pledged not to return to their diocese when the Government abolishes the sector. A quarter more are undecided.

Heads and governors are torn between their commitment to the Church and their desire to remain independent of the local education authority. If they opted for foundation status - one of the Government's three new categories of school and the nearest equivalent to GMS - their Church ties would be weakened.

That the issue is on their minds is clear from the response to the TES survey - 80 per cent of GM church schools replied, compared with 42 per cent of primaries and 43 per cent of secondaries.

The head of a London primary spoke for many when he rejected all three of the Government's new categories - community, aided and foundation - saying:"I don't want any. I want a new category."

GM church schools would like a special aidedfoundation category, allowing them to retain their autonomy and their links with the Church. It is unlikely they will get it.

They currently have the right to include a commitment to Christianity in their admissions criteria, and foundation (church) governors form a substantial majority on their boards.

The Anglican and the Catholic Churches claim the Government is attempting to rewrite the 1944 Education Act, which established the dual system of church and state.

They complain that there would be fewer foundation governors under the new aided status, which ministers expect most church schools to opt for.

The Churches now have a major task persuading nearly 80 GM voluntary-aided schools to stay in the fold. Many are attracted to foundation status because - unlike aided schools - they would not have to contribute 15 per cent of capital costs. If others follow suit, the issue of who picks up the bill for these capital costs becomes serious.

Many church schools opted out because of severe underfunding. Several heads in the survey cited the benefits of going GM - new car parks, science labs, extra teachers and classroom assistants.

A total of 247 GM church schools responded to the TES survey - 173 former voluntary aided and 74 voluntary controlled. More than 80 per cent of voluntary-controlled schools said they would opt for foundation status, 4 per cent wanted to become aided and 11 per cent did not know. Corresponding figures for the aided schools were 21 per cent, 54 per cent and 25 per cent.

The head of a GM aided primary said: "We believe the current proposals present a serious threat to the church school sector. The new aided sector will be quite different from the one we left."

The head of a CofE primary, which is likely to opt for foundation status, said: "The Government insists that it is not interested in structures. Actually its proposals involve radical restructuring of all schools. What happens to the church connection? Controlled or ex-controlled schools are being wiped out."

Just nine out of the 247 schools said they would not regret the loss of GM status, while 116 (47 per cent) believed they would suffer retaliation from the local authority.

Some also expected trouble with the diocese, where bishops were hostile to opting out.

The head of a Catholic convent school did not know what status it would adopt - "the original foundation does not want us back" - while the head of a CofE primary in the Midlands, which wants foundation status, said: "God help us! We're dreading it."

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Clare Dean & Dorothy Lepkowska

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