Is there to be life after Labour?

17th October 1997 at 01:00
The White Paper threatens the 50-year-old partnership between Church and State, says Kathleen Wood.

When the responses to the education White Paper were opened this week they revealed the churches' opposition to proposals that threaten their 50-year-old education partnership with the State.

Church leaders have talked to civil servants during the consultation period, as well as to the Secretary of State and the school standards minister. As yet, however, no undertaking has been given that the Education Bill, due to be published in November, will be changed.

The White Paper, Excellence in Schools, includes a commitment by the Government to the partnership forged in 1944. For their part, the churches have welcomed many of the proposed changes. Their concern is with chapter seven of the paper - "A new partnership" - and with the proposals for school governance, admissions and religious education contained in the technical consultation paper.

The Government wants to set up three new categories of school, "aided", "foundation" and "community", allowing schools to select their own category in a way that the churches believe may bring chaos.

In voluntary-aided schools the church's foundation governors currently have an overall majority. The White Paper proposes to restrict that majority to one - always a difficult situation if that someone is absent when crucial decisions are made. Officials and ministers assure church leaders there is no intention to weaken the powers of the foundation governors - they just want to find room for more parent governors without increasing the size of the governing body.

The churches have offered a compromise; they would accept proposals that demanded that more foundation governors who were parents. But they cannot accept this system that so weakens their influence.

New arrangements for the control of admissions also cause concern. The 1944 settlement confirmed the right of the churches to set admissions criteria that include a commitment to Christianity. While many church schools serve the whole of their local community, admitting children whose parents profess a different faith or none at all, the right to include a faith commitment within the admissions criteria is of fundamental significance.

The Government's proposals would make all admissions arrangements subject to the agreement of local forums on which church schools would be represented, but not able to demand their current entitlement. Independent adjudicators are promised, but there is no guarantee that they will be sympathetic to the churches. Important questions about the recruitment and powers of the adjudicators are ignored in the White Paper, leaving the churches feeling that the survival of their rights will be left to chance.

It is suggested that voluntary-controlled schools will be likely to opt for the new foundation category. The same suggestion is made for grant-maintained schools, and it is easy to see that the specification for this category was drawn up with the GM schools in mind. It does not appear that drafters of the proposals realised that VC schools would outnumber GM schools by about four to one, and that the impact on VC church schools will be out of all proportion to any other school.

The Government proposes to make only "essential minimum" changes to put the new framework in place. One means by which this will be done is to allow all schools to continue to provide RE according to their current status, rather than according to their new one - except in the case of GM schools, which will revert to the conditions applying to their status before they became GM!

So, in each of the new categories there may be three different regimes for the teaching of RE, including the possibility that a church school could be "aided" and making its 15 per cent contribution to capital and external repair bills, while the church has no control over the RE taught in the school. The churches are naturally determined to see that this proposal does not reach the Statute Book.

Long before the beginning of free state education for all, the churches were building schools and offering secular education within a religious framework. Though many were closed as the state system reached every town and village, sufficient numbers remained in 1944 for Church and State to negotiate a settlement that has lasted until 1997. Today, one third of all state schools in England - about 7,500 - are church schools, with Methodist, Church of England or Roman Catholic foundations.

The 1944 settlement established a partnership through which the churches remained in control of their schools, with rights over the appointment of foundation governors and protection of denominational worship. Many became voluntary-aided schools, where the foundation governors are in a majority, and where RE as well as collective worship is determined by the governors, who also employ the staff and control admissions.

The church, as owner of the school land and buildings, contributes 15 per cent of capital costs of improvements and all external repairs. Over Pounds 26 million was made available by the churches in this way in the last financial year.

Not all the schools pre-date the 1944 settlement. Urban development and the popularity of church school education has seen new voluntary-aided schools built in recent years: again 15 per cent of the capital cost is raised from the churches.

It will be regrettable if the first education legislation of the new Government damages the relationship between Labour and church leaders, when the churches are in sympathy with most of the Government's aspirations for education. But more is needed than generalised expressions about the importance of the Church-State partnership, if that partnership is to survive.

Kathleen Wood is education officer for the Methodist Church

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