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Separation may end in tiers

Last September, the Prime Minister announced that voluntary-aided schools could be put on a fast track to achieve grant-maintained status. The move was prompted by Mr Major's wish to breathe some new life into the flagging GM schools policy.

In line with this, the Department for Education and Employment has just produced a consultative document setting out various options for achieving Mr Major's ambition.

These can be summarised by describing them as ways in which the present legislation governing the acquisition of GM status can be got around, including the requirement to hold a parental ballot.

Indeed, one of the options proposes the casting aside of all pretence at canvassing the views of parents and teachers by the simple device of opting all voluntary-aided schools into grant-maintained status and then placing the onus on governors to opt the school back into the local education authority-maintained system. By this token, the Government will have truly adopted Henry Ford's dictum on choice, that "you can have any colour of car you want as long as it is black" and applied it with a vengeance to the education world. There is another vital aspect to these proposals, however, which needs to be considered. Their implementation could result in a two-tier system of education reflecting a churchLEA school division, which could have serious repercussions for the future.

The consultative paper makes a glancing reference to the history of church and state schools but, significantly, makes no mention of the often long and bitter dispute which surrounded this relationship and which, it was widely acknowledged, was laid to rest by the 1944 Education Act.

The essence of that 1944 legislation was that, in return for a contribution from the churches towards the cost of building the church schools, the state, through LEAs, would fully maintain them and, of course, pay the salaries of all their staff. The churches, through their nominated trustees, would retain the ownership of the schools and a majority on their governing bodies.

The Government disrupted this agreement by the passing of the 1993 Education Act when voluntary-aided schools were given 100 per cent financing of capital costs if they chose to go grant-maintained. It is a tribute to the great good sense of many voluntary-aided school governing bodies, and to the leadership by the main churches, that so many VA schools have resisted this blatant bribe to break the 1944 consensus.

Now the Government is returning to the issue and, in pursuit of a short-term objective which is largely to do with embarrassing the Opposition, proposes a course of action which may, in the future, have repercussions undreamt of by ministers and which could, in the end, endanger the continued existence of voluntary-aided schools. For there can be little doubt that if preferential funding and treatment come to be associated with the existence of voluntary-aided schools, then the reasons for their separate existence could increasingly be called into question.

Furthermore, if other religious groups begin to avail themselves of the facility which is now largely limited to Anglicans and Catholics, this could add to a growing disenchantment with the very principle of the separation of state and church schools.

That, of course, would not be what the Government intended, but as the churches whose interest may be endangered were wont to observe in bygone years - the way to Hell is paved with good intentions.

Eamonn O'Kane is the deputy general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers.

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