Ready for a return to the body politic

28th February 1997 at 00:00
After years in the wilderness, churches look set to revive their influence in education policy-making.

When Harold Wilson resigned in 1976, the boys of St Anselm's Roman Catholic grammar school in Birkenhead stood up and cheered. Egged on by the Christian Brothers who ran the place, they believed that Wilson was out to steal the school from Catholics by abolishing direct-grant funding.

Peter Stanford, Catholic writer and commentator, and one of the boys required to cheer, says it points up the narrowness of the educational focus that once prevailed in some branches of Catholicism.

It also, he says, demonstrates a fine degree of political ignorance: monks and boys alike failed to understand that Labour would stay in power with or without Wilson in charge, and that St Anselm's government funding would be removed just the same. Finally, he believes, it illustrates a residual degree of hostility to Labour in general.

There is still a whiff of suspicion around even today. Labour's plans for Catholic and Anglican grant-maintained schools, including St Anselm's, are unclear. The churches are once more fearful that a Labour government will revert to type to keep these schools away from the circle of church influence.

David Blunkett, the party's education spokesman, has been dishing out the reassurances in recent months, and will no doubt do so again when he meets the Catholic bishops this week; Labour sounds increasingly warm towards denominational schools.

But the churches are seeking the return of something more fundamental than a few school budgets, something that Mr Blunkett might be rather more reluctant to provide: the return of their place at the centre of education policy.

The past 10 years have not been altogether good for church educationists. Indeed, one could be forgiven for thinking that they have been written out of the script altogether: the churches are, after all, just the sort of consensus institutions that provoked so much Conservative suspicion in the 1980s.

Catholic, Anglican and Free Churches have, to their apparently genuine astonishment, found themselves unable to alter the free-market, competitive drift of education policy - whether on grounds of general equity or self-interest.

The local education authorities, where the churches have traditionally played their major role, have been shorn of power. The rise of GM schooling is one of the more dramatic and contentious results - creating vast anger, particularly in the Catholic hierarchy.

The Government's refusal to guarantee the principle of free transport to Church schools - under threat across the country - hardly bodes well for the old dual agreement between church and state.

Not that the churches are wholly ignored, or that they ever could be. After all, they own one-third of the schools in the land - about 7,000. Without all these buildings, there could have been no 1944 Education Act and no national system of schooling for all - although the churches have also benefited. The financial burden of running so many schools was almost certainly beyond them in the longer term.

The 19 organisations making up the Free Church Federal Council - including the Methodists and the Baptists - hold an interesting position, having ceded most of their own school sector to the state at the start of this century. Since then, they have maintained a moral interest in county schools - those that are neither Catholic nor Anglican.

With their mammoth contribution to the new education system, the churches were given automatic positions of influence. Not only were they well represented on LEAs, they were present on senior policy committees - the School Curriculum Development Council, for example, and various teacher training advisory committees.

Things started to go wrong with the arrival of the 1988 Education Reform Act and its progenitor, Kenneth Baker. Geoff Robson was the HMI responsible for religious education and collective worship during much of the 1980s: "Things only really changed when Keith Joseph left the education department," he said. "It was only then that the government took charge of policy-making in curriculum terms. Joseph had specifically said that he wasn't going to get involved with the curriculum. It was when Kenneth Baker arrived and the whole thing became centralised that the churches lost their voice."

In particular, the churches have found that huge swathes of policy are now determined by quangos on which they have no guaranteed representation - the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, the Funding Agency for Schools, and the Teacher Training Agency.

The churches have been reduced to consultative also-rans, according to Gillian Wood, education secretary of the Free Church Federal Council - treatment she also saw meted out to the teaching unions when she worked for the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

Margaret Smart, director of the Catholic Education Service, representing the Catholic bishops, says that the churches are now much less involved in educational planning. Given that denominational schooling is expensive for the Catholic Church to run and has to be highly planned, this is a problem.

The threat of widespread academic selection is a case in point. Not only does the Catholic sector back comprehensives in principle, in practice it is wholly unable to afford a grammar school in every town.

Mrs Smart detects no hostility from Gillian Shephard or the Department for Education and Employment. "I believe the Government is anxious to have the support of the churches," she says. "Oddly, we're much happier with central government than we are with the quangos." She believes they have less understanding of the church sector.

Not that the churches' influence should be underestimated. They were able to see off the Prime Minister's extraordinary plan to "fast track" denominational schools to GM status by abolishing parental ballots. The Church of England still has power in the House of Lords where it can muster 14 bishops, and, in Parliament as a whole, church causes are advanced by plenty of prominent individuals.

On a more pragmatic level, there have been some positive gains. It has been shown recently that Catholics and Anglicans run popular and successful schools - some of them attended by the children of senior members of the Labour party. OFSTED is conducting an investigation into why it is that Catholic schools are doing so well. At the same time, the Conservative policy of promoting "diversity" has helped raise public consciousness about the distinctive nature of denominational schools - even as it has eroded the churches' traditional powerbase.

But the lack of any say in the fundamentals of policy continues to cause concern. Stephen Orchard, director of the Christian Education Movement and a Baptist minister, says: "The churches are effective in dealing with the details, and in particular protecting their immediate interests. I don't think they have been very good at the big picture, the broad policy decisions. " It is, he says, in notable contrast with the clear church voice on social issues.

It will not have helped morale that on a number of occasions the Government has preferred to listen to individuals with colourful religious beliefs, such as Lord Griffiths, Lady Olga Maitland and Baroness Cox - rather than to the official representatives of the churches.

One Church of England commentator said: "As long ago as 1988 it was clear that the only things we can influence are issues specifically to do with RE or spiritual and moral development. Occasionally, we can influence policy on church schools".

Things might be changing, for two reasons. First, there is a gathering political presumption in favour of re-establishing ideals of consensus and community. That, in turn, is bang in tune with church views. The Catholic bishops' recent policy paper, The Common Good, is a notable illustration. Whitehall is said to be more receptive to church views than for many years, and the Labour party has made "community" its central policy thrust.

Second, it seems that Catholic, Anglican and Free Churches are now in a better position to take advantage. The Free Churches are beginning to accept the value of church schools, despite a century of backing the non-church system. Anglicans are recognising the distinctive value of their own schools: thanks in part to the government inspection regime, the church has beefed up its diocesan education structure and taken a new interest in its education mission. And an increasingly confident Catholic Church is discovering the value of other people's schools. An educational version of The Common Good is under consideration.

A united churches' view of education that goes beyond the restrictions of self-interest now seems more likely to be voiced. In particular, Anglicans, Catholics and the Free Churches are known to be concerned at a utilitarian strain in education policy: what they see as the emphasis on training at the expense of a more rounded schooling. A statement could well be forthcoming from the Churches Joint Education Policy Committee, a body that, incidentally, was set up with self-interest to the fore - to ensure that no one church got more than its fair share of wartime's bombed-out ruins.

Church and State


Education Reform Act created GM schools. Churches concerned at potential divisiveness of funding arrangments and at threat of their own schools leaving the LEAdiocesan structure.

The Act re-formulated laws on RE and collective worship thanks to influence of right wing Christians led by Baroness Cox. Churches fought rearguard action in House of Lords to preserve status quo.


Measure intended to increase the number of GM schools made it possible for private religious schools to "opt-in" in GM status. In practice the Government has only paid for well-established, former direct grant schools to do so.


Circular on RE and collective worship attempts to set out statutory proportions of Christianity to be, respectively, studied and worshipped. Government's view that Christianity should "predominate" criticised by leading church figures including Bishop of Ripon (chairman of Anglican Board of Education) and the then Archbishop of York.


John Major's proposal to "fast track" church schools to GM status by abolishing the need for parental ballots runs into the sands of angry opposition.


Churches press for stronger references to God and marriage in the Values paper currently being prepared by SCAA 1997

Church colleges of higher education fight for survival as Sir Ron Dearing's review of higher education continues.

Matters of status

There are two main sorts of denominational school: voluntary-aided and voluntary-controlled.

* Controlled schools, mainly Anglican primaries, are governed by a trust deed which frequently has the parish priest as chair of the governing body. It sets out the terms of collective worship in the school and might also, for example, demand that the headteacher be a member of the Church. The admissions policy is however governed by the local authority, which also pays for the upkeep of the buildings.

* Although still belonging to the Churches, controlled schools are more loosely attached than voluntary-aided schools. Here the Churches not only have a majority on the governing body, they dictate the admissions policy and the syllabus for religious education. While the state pays for the running costs of VA schools, the Churches must pay for 15 per cent of the annual capital maintenance. Special Agreement schools are an unusual hybrid of the controlledaided arrangement.

* The position has been complicated by the arrival of grant-maintained VA schools, which require no financial contribution from the Churches. Because however GM schools are removed from the LEA system, the dioceses fear that their influence has been reduced.

Numbers in church and Jewish schools

Church of England:

Primary: 4,615 schools educating 717,000 pupils 1,848 voluntary-aided 2,665 voluntary-controlled 1 special agreement 99 grant-maintained

Secondary: 204 schools educating 144,000 pupils

82 voluntary-aided 71 voluntary-controlled 11 special agreement 40 grant-maintained

Roman Catholic:

Primary: 1,776 schools educating 395,000 pupils 1,729 voluntary-aided 1 voluntary-controlled 1 special agreement 45 grant-maintained

Secondary: 365 schools educating 289,000 pupils

245 voluntary-controlled 36 special agreement 84 grant-maintained


Primary: 30 schools educating 4,900 pupils 4 voluntary-aided 26 voluntary-controlled


Primary: 18 schools educating 5,661 pupils 17 voluntary-aided 1 grant-maintained

Secondary: 4 schools educating 3,209 pupils 1 voluntary-aided 1 special agreement 2 grant-maintained

All schools, including denominational: Primary: 18,551 schools, 4,005, 842 pupils Secondary: 3,614 schools, 2,992,857 pupils

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