Church schools get special protection
Guidance not yet sent out to councils prevents the schools admissions watchdog from closing or reducing places in an authority if the Anglicans or Catholics object.
Local authority proposals to close or reduce the size of church schools must now take into account the balance of denominational and non-denominational places.
The Office of the Schools Adjudicator, which intervenes in disputes over school places, is studying the small print of the guidance which was only made available through e-mail to authorities which requested it. Sir Peter Newsam, the chief adjudicator, said: "We have got to see how it works out."
It was criticised by Keith Porteous Wood, general secretary of the National Secular Society, who accused the Department for Education and Employment of discriminating against non-denominational schools.
He said parents with children at local authority schools would resent the move.
One of the first disputes over the new guidelines is likely to be in Northumberland where the adjudicator is looking at the closure of three primary schools - two of which are church schools.
Somerset has already been forced to abandon plans to close Berkley Church of England first chool near Frome.
Colin Diamond, assistant education director, said: "This has left us high and dry."
The guidance follows ministers' earlier assurances that the school organisation committees which were set up under the 1998 School Standards and Framework Act would not work against churches.
Mr Porteous Wood added: "The guidance raises fundamental questions about the unhealthily close relationship between government departments and religious groups. For them to have so much influence is an abuse of the democratic process."
It comes as the Church of England proposes to take over a failing school in Nottingham and open an 11 to 18 school on the site in September 2002.
Under plans now being discussed, the council would close the school in July 2002. Today's Year 8 pupils would stay on, buildings would be rented to the church and staff encouraged to apply for their old jobs.
A final decision, which forms part of a general proposal to get rid of 3,000 surplus places in Nottingham, is expected in April.
Mike Armstrong, headteacher, said: "People are very sad about the proposed closure but recognise that we are too small and are pleased this superb site is going to be saved."
Anglican bishops want to increase the number of their secondary schools from 198 and a task group, chaired by Lord Dearing, is looking at opportunities for expansion, including taking over failing LEA schools.