Joan Sallis answers your questions

20th May 2005 at 01:00
I am a parent governor of a C of E-aided school in a village three miles from a sizeable town. It is an exceptionally good school and I think that over the years this has been a factor in determining the sort of families who move here. For example, people will buy tiny cottages which they have to modernise and extend to accommodate their families.

We have now clearly reached breaking point and can no longer accommodate the whole primary-age population. Those who do not get places have to be driven the three miles to town or take the bus. I do not think children of infant-school age should have to travel to school but the main point I have to raise concerns criteria.

Up to two years ago we were able to accommodate all who wanted to come and there was no need to insist on church membership. Now we do have to apply this test which means that families who have recently chosen to settle here solely because of the school may get preference, if they are church-goers, over some other families who have lived here many years and who only now have children in the appropriate age range.

I think it is awful that newcomers should push them out - and it is easy enough to make a case if they are determined to get places. Some sudden conversions, shall I say, and generous donations to church funds.

This is certainly not a healthy situation and I can understand how families with long connections with the village resent it. I also agree that it is not desirable for such young children to travel to school, except of course in cases where there are considerable numbers and school transport is provided.

But whatever we think, the right of voluntary-aided schools - whose forebears provided the school and whose church community still have obligations to maintain it - to give preference to families of their own faith has been the law since the earliest days of public education.

If there had been extensive house-building in the village one could have criticised the local education authority and the governing body for not anticipating the need and enlarging the school, but it seems to have been a quiet change which has just tipped the numbers over. The issue is complicated by the fact that there are legal class-size limits in the first two age groups of compulsory schooling, which the governors cannot exceed even temporarily - and of course no one would want to change this anyway.

I suggest that the governing body and the Diocesan authorities urgently discuss with the LEA the likely future trends to see whether there is a case for extra accommodation, at least in the infants department, (it is obviously less serious if seven to 11-year-olds travel) and also perhaps whether estate agents in the area could be advised to warn buyers that the school is full.

I cannot think of any other solution, though it might just be worthwhile for all concerned to discuss the entry criteria - not, I hasten to say, the principle, which cannot be changed, of preference for church members - to make sure that claims of newcomers to church commitment are at least genuine. I say this because I am worried about your suggestion that these claims are too easily allowed.

Joan Sallis does her best to answer all letters, but please keep requests for private replies to a minimum, since we aim to provide helpful information for ALL readers and always protect the identity of schools and individuals. Questions for Joan Sallis should be sent to The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX, fax 020 7782 3202, or see

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