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Schools Bill sets challenge for Church

03 February 2011

by Margaret Holness Education Correspondent

THE Government’s redrawing of the educational landscape has been underlined by the Education Bill, published last week.

The Bill, largely technical, gives legal underpinning to the philosophy of the White Paper, published last November, which proposed self-governing academies and free schools, funded directly by central government, as the best way to raise standards. This would largely negate town-hall influence (News, 26 November 2010).

Academy or free-school status would be the order of the day for any new school. Conversion to academy status would be the only survival strategy for any school that failed to meet government targets.

Some education commentators see similarities between the Govern­ment’s policies on health and those on education: in both cases, handing over resources and responsibilities to those in charge at the sharp end — GPs and school heads — and “cutting out the middle man” — local author­ities and local health trusts.

The Bill certainly shows a move to centralisation beyond the issue of funding, and extends the power of the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, to intervene when schools are seriously underperforming. Where schools fail, Mr Gove would be able to direct local authorities to issue warning notices, and, ultimately, to close those that did not improve. He could also direct OFSTED so that inspectors would con­centrate on the worst-performing schools.

“We need tough, new powers to take action when things go wrong. In the worst schools, there will be new intervention powers. . . It is unaccept­able that children should suffer in schools that are not doing a good job,” Mr Gove said last week.

Several of the Bill’s provisions secure the legal position of church schools, particularly in matters relat­ing to land and trusts, church educa­tion chiefs say. The Bill will radically alter the church-state partnership, however, under which education in schools has been conducted since 1944, and leave the Churches to work out their new role.

“One thing is certain: we are determined to keep the church-school family together,” said the deputy general secretary of the Church of England’s National So­ciety, Dr Rob Gwynne.

A committee on the future shape of education in church schools is already in place, and plans to report before September. An urgent issue for the Church is how national and diocesan education officers can pro­vide their schools with the support for­merly supplied by local author­ities. School improvement is a signif­icant example. Several C of E second­ary schools in challenging areas are failing to meet new govern­ment targets.

C of E free school approved. The proposed St Luke’s C of E Primary School, Hampstead, in the London borough of Camden, is among the first of eight free schools to gain ap­proval for its business plan from the Department for Education, it was announced this week. The school intends to take its first 15 pupils in September, and will operate at first from the church hall of St Luke’s.

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