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A prayer for church opt outs

Much has been made of Labour leader Tony Blair's no doubt carefully considered decision to send his son to a grant-maintained school. Less notice has been taken of the fact that the London Oratory is not only a GM school, it is a Catholic GM school. A proportionately greater number of church schools (rather more RC than C of E) have opted out, so the church dimension is particularly significant in the light of proposals, emanating from elements within the Labour party, whereby ex-voluntary-aided GM schools would be returned, under a Labour government, to voluntary-controlled status.

For many years the Socialist Educational Association has been determined to toll the death knell for church schools; it is now latching on to GMS as a way to give vent to a long-held antagonism.

The alleged rationale is simplistic. Voluntary-aided schools have to fund a percentage, originally 50 per cent now 15 per cent, of capital works, repairs and maintenance. Since GM schools are l00 per cent funded, church GM schools are deemed to have sold their "birthright" and deserve no more than controlled status under which Church involvement is diminished.

If most church schools were controlled by local politicians, including antagonistic ones, then the Church's role in education would necessarily be weakened. What would be next?

GM status is simply the logical development of LMS. Funding has moved from 85-90 per cent to 100 per cent; limited management flexibility has now become full management flexibility. Of course, some heads and governors do not want such responsibility. That is understandable. But why should those who do be criticised by some who are happy to manage their schools with one hand tied behind their backs? We ensure that money is not wasted by an LEA blinded by political prejudices; we ensure that services are provided effectively, and efficiently.

Equally clearly GMS has done nothing to weaken the Christian nature of church schools or their partnership with the Church locally or nationally. The reason we do not want to revert to VA status is nothing to do with the ecclesiastical nature of that status, it is to do with school management - our ability to take decisions. We have come of age and, in consultation with our parents, we know how to run our schools and do not need to have our hands held by bureaucrats.

Some, however, even within the Church, believe that the only call the Church has on our education system is that it pays its 15 per cent, and that the loss of this responsibility "weakens its voice in education". Do they not recognise that the Church's role has been spiritually, historically and culturally much greater than mere matter of payment to Caesar? Has not the Christian Church, with its role in the political structures of this country, and with its contribution towards the spiritual and moral "health" of the country, done enough to give it a voice of authority in the education of young people? Even if some are not injecting additional cash into schools now, the contribution of 50 years should not be forgotten, nor of course, that these, and many other schools, were actually established by the Church in the first place.

It is true that responsibility even for the 15 per cent has been a great burden for many church schools, although I am not aware of any which has opted out simply to "escape" this responsibility. My own school, for example, continues to raise significant sums of money, but it is no longer tied to "bricks and mortar". We are refurbishing laboratories left to deteriorate for years by the LEA. Even before GMS we raised a quarter of a million pounds to build the sports hall, thus saving public funds. Such action is not uncommon for church schools.

If a Labour government is to destroy GM status simply for ideological reasons what reason could there be not to restore VA schools to their original status? Sadly, an element of vindictiveness is now becoming apparent: is this part of an antipathy towards church schools per se? It would be much more honest if they would clarify their motives. We could then call upon Labour's new modernising leader to say where he stands, and let the voters make an informed choice. After all, many of them have wisely decided, like Tony Blair, to place their children in successful GM and church schools.

The Revd Peter Shepherd is head of Canon Slade School, Bolton.

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