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We need a new focus on schooling, says Pritchard

10 May 2013


THE Church's special relationship with the Government over schools - in place for 70 years since the 1944 settlement - is dead, the C of E's top education spokesman has said.

The Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd John Pritchard, is chairman of the Board of Education. He told a private conference in London last week: "The dual system is bust. It is dead. It is not coming back."

The dual system is the method under which schools have been provided in a partnership between central Government and the Church of England and, to a lesser extent, the Roman Catholic Church. The 1944 agreement recognised the Church's unique stake in education, with its national system of schools dating back to 1811.

The partnership has been under increasing pressure for some time, first, from the demand from minority faiths for the right to run their own schools, and, since 2010, from the changing education landscape mapped out by the Education Secretary, Michael Gove. He has championed two new types of school, free schools and Mark 2 academies, opening the system to other providers, among them commercial concerns.

Worries about the partnership have been growing for some time, but no one has spoken so forthrightly until now. Bishop Pritchard chose to speak out at a private education conference in London, last week, organised by the Board of Education's legal advisers, Lee Bolton Monier-Williams, and attended by representatives of diocesan education boards and other educationists.

At the end of last week, the Bishop gave the reason for his candour: "It was a roomful of educationalists. They knew what I was talking about. If I'd been addressing a different gathering, I might have said the dual system had been parked in a cul-de-sac from which it's not going to return."

The purpose of his straight talking was to focus minds on the C of E's future role in a multi-system approach to schooling. It was a role that should be accepted with confidence, he said. Although the range of providers was growing, with newcomers ranging from local backers of one-off free schools to professional academy chains operating nationally, the C of E was ahead of the pack.

Outside the Government, it remained the largest provider of schools, with just under 5000 schools, including more than 300 academies. "We have the national coverage and a network of expertise," he said.

But the Gove reforms had significantly expanded the task of school providers, making them directly responsible for standards. This responsibility had formerly been shouldered by local authorities, but these had been deprived of their resources by central Government.

As a result, community as well as church schools were seeking help from dioceses, which were now being seen as a local focus of support. "We are increasingly sharing expertise through multi-academy trusts and less formal collaboration projects. Both might include academies, voluntary aided, voluntary controlled, and community schools," Bishop Pritchard said.

"The Government will not accept mediocre standards; so we have to develop a culture of delivery," he said. This meant "tooling up", recruiting skilled staff on a diocesan or regional basis, a move that had considerable financial implications.

Here again, Bishop Pritchard spoke aloud what his audience was thinking: who was going to pay? "We have to convince my fellow bishops to reconsider the balance between the funds going to parishes and what is needed for our schools."

On 3 July, Mr Gove will have an opportunity to hear the Church's view. He has accepted an invitation from the Archbishop of Canterbury to attend a meeting at Lambeth Palace with bishops from every diocese.

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