People versus Church

25th February 2005 at 00:00
When the Archdiocese of Birmingham sacked four governors for refusing to change a school's admissions policy, it quickly became clear who wielded the most power. Nic Barnard reports

By any measure, St Benedict's Roman Catholic high school in Alcester is a good school. Last year, 88 per cent of its pupils got five good GCSEs; it ranks among the best for value added; and it does so as a Warwickshire secondary modern competing against three local grammar schools.

But for the past 10 months it has been beset by a crisis which some fear has put the school's future success at risk, prompted a campaign by parents and caused bitterness, ill-feeling and threats of court action - and led to the loss of eight governors and their clerk.

The catalyst for these events was the decision by the Archdiocese of Birmingham to sack four foundation governors last July for refusing to change the school's admissions policy.

It raises questions about appointing bodies' right to sack governors, and the balance between foundation governors' independence, their duty to the school and to the diocese.

And, alongside a second case in Brighton, where the local education authority sacked a chair of governors, it highlights that some governors have no right to challenge their removal.

St Benedict's was a school close to closure when Tim Sara arrived as head 12 years ago. Pupil numbers were down to just 200, with only one in four gaining five good GCSEs. Under his watch it has tripled in size and results soared, thanks to a strategy of making pupils and parents feel proud of their school - not least by giving priority to those who put it first on their list of preferences, ahead of local grammars.

It is a policy in which Mr Sara passionately upholds. But the Archdiocese believes it disenfranchises local Catholics who put the school second or third, and runs counter to the trust deed stipulating that diocesan schools are created "for children of the Roman Catholic Church".

After governors voted for the second year running to ignore the church's advice and retain the policy by 13-5, the Archdiocese dismissed the four foundation governors it believed had disobeyed it. Four other governors, including chair Yvonne Billingsley, and the clerk quit in protest. "We felt that because we had made a collective democratic decision, we needed to stand by it," Mrs Billingsley says.

The pain caused by the rift is clear. Andrew Cosnett, sacked after 15 years as a governor of Catholic schools, says: "I was born a Catholic, educated a Catholic, my children have been educated at Catholic schools. I've got no desire to take on the Roman Catholic Church. But what the Church has done is fundamentally wrong when it comes to the independence of governors."

The Church argues that diocesan governors do not have limitless independence. Father Marcus Stock, director of schools at the Diocesan Schools Commission at the Archdiocese, says: "In my six years as director, this is the first time I've removed foundation governors. We wouldn't remove them simply because they disagreed with diocesan policy. The real issue was to do with the statutory responsibility of all governors to conduct the school in accordance with the trust deed under which it was founded."

The sacked members and their supporters point to legal precedents defending governors' independence, and to cases in other dioceses disputing interpretations of similar trust deeds. They note that, thanks to the school's success, St Benedict's takes more Catholic pupils than ever.

But short of the High Court, there is no forum for those arguments to be heard. The Department for Education and Skills says: "LEA or diocesan bodies are not required to give a reason for dismissing their appointed governors and there is no appeal process."

The ex-governors considered judicial review, but quickly realised they could not take on the might - and wealth - of the Church. In a sign of the bitterness of the confrontation, some hint it was made clear they could lose their homes if they lost. Certainly the Church had made clear it would recoup costs.

Phil Godding, an education IT consultant and former teacher who had been a governor at St Benedict's for more than eight years, says: "The whole thing is about power. It's nothing to do with Catholicism. That's been made very clear to me."

Down on the south coast, Reg Hook, an LEA governor and chair of Dorothy Stringer school, found himself summarily sacked by Brighton and Hove Council's director of education, David Hawker, following complaints that building work carried out over the summer was improperly authorised. Three months later, following further investigation, Mr Hawker says he is happy to see Mr Hook reinstated as a governor and chair.

So why was he sacked before inquiries were complete? "It's a question of the level of confidence an authority can place in an LEA governor," Mr Hawker says.

He adds: "I think we took the right action at the time."

The school might disagree. Mr Hook is widely respected, with 25 years'

service including six as chair at Dorothy Stringer. And, as at St Benedict's, there is a whiff of power games.

Dorothy Stringer is one of four Brighton schools in the controversial Jarvis PFI contract. The council has championed PFI but some schools feel they have been dumped with complex contracts, shoddy work and even rat infestations. Some at Dorothy Stringer viewed Mr Hook's dismissal as an attack on the whole school.

Mr Hook says: "LEA governors are very vulnerable if there's a dispute between the school and the authority. At the very least, the Government should give them the right to present their side of the case if there's any chance that they'll be removed. At worst they could be suspended for a fixed period while they investigate."

LEA and, with caveats, faith governors should by law be independent, and have a duty to place pupils' interests first. But if they can be sacked so peremptorily, where is the protection for that independence?

Jane Phillips, former chair of the National Association of School Governors and editor of its journal, Governors' News, says her postbag often contains cases of governors who feel "bullied".

"Governors' independence will be even more pertinent in city academies and foundation schools," she says. "What if governors in academies don't toe the party line of sponsors? And the DfES model for foundation schools very much reduces the role of parent governors."

Back in Warwickshire, a survey by St Benedict's parents' association - which admittedly made its support for first preference clear - found 94 per cent in support of the policy.

Marie Rendell, a parent campaigning against the sacking, says: "A lot of parents have spoken to me of their concern - it isn't just the admissions arrangements but the whole independence of the governors to run the school as they see fit."

Almost a year on, the Archdiocese has secured the admissions policy it wanted - with a minor concession to allow in siblings of current non-Catholic pupils - and as a conciliatory gesture offered to lead a national debate on the challenges facing Catholic secondary moderns.

But Mr Sara says: "This has certainly affected the school. It has caused a lot of heartache. It's been extremely stressful and has taken a lot of time and energy.

"There are one or two positives - we've seen the unity of vision and belief among people at the school. I think the pupils have been protected: the results last summer were our best ever.

"But certainly, damage has been done and I hope it's not irreparable."

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