A new vicar recently came to a Lancashire parish with a church school. One of his first acts, as the newly-elected chairman of governors, was to persuade the governing body to hold a ballot of parents about going grant-maintained. Suddenly, the school had been launched into a round of political infighting.
The parents rejected the blandishments of GM status. Because of similar rejections, and because most church school governors have not let things get so far as an unwanted ballot, the Government is now trying refloat its educational flagship idea.
A consultation paper on "self-government for voluntary aided schools" is now out, with responses due by November 24 . Options A and B are simply ways to speed up the existing ballot process (presumably to beat the General Election), but option C would remove the requirement for parental approval altogether.
"Ballots", it says, "were included because of the desirability of involving parents in important decisions about a school's development. Unfortunately, in too many cases the debate surrounding a ballot has become acrimonious and is obscured by propaganda and misinformation. " So, because proper debate might be "unnecessarily stressful", and certainly not because the vote might go the wrong way, option C is to let the governing body take the final decision about seeking GM status without a ballot, though "Ministers would expect governors to take proper account of views expressed by parent representatives on the governing body" .
It would still be possible for parents "to instigate a ballot by presenting a petition to the governing body". The paper points out that a "Yes" vote forces unwilling governors to publish formal proposals. It does not say whether, if a governing body tries to go GM without a ballot, and the parents petition for a ballot and vote "No", that would override the governors.
The unnecessary stress under this option would be transferred to parent-governor elections, and governor appointments by church authorities, with "wider political issues" suddenly a vital matter. And don't forget that in the Church of England the church councils that appoint governors are elected by any baptised "member" (very loosely defined, if at all) who turns up at the annual meeting.
Do vicars really want their church communities disturbed by politics, simply to push a dying idea past unwilling parents in church schools?
The outcome of this consultation is fairly predictable. Church schools have remained more loyal to local education authorities than have county schools, despite extra financial advantages. There will be no acclamation from church schools or diocesan authorities for these attempts to get round the Government's own propaganda about parental choice.
Will the Government still go ahead? Quite possibly. They are now suffering from a total inability to see that the policy has failed. If parents are not choosing it, then the parents must have been "misinformed". And if all else fails, option D is to make all aided schools GM, with governing bodies able to decide to stay with the local authority, in which case the phrase "opting out" would be so confusing that we may never hear its like again. God willing.
Steve Parish is vicar of St Ann's, Warrington.