AN UNEXPECTED situation has arisen. The Church of England - or,
possibly more accurately, its education arm - is in a position,
largely, to determine the future shape of schooling in England.
As the Government enters the long haul towards the next
election, in 2015, the creation of academies in the primary sector
remains unfinished business for the Secretary of State for
Detaching primary schools from local- authority influence, and
administering them through regional bodies controlled from the DfE
offices in Westminster, is clearly Michael Gove's vision for
primary education. The significant number of Church of England
primary schools - as well as schools of other faiths - can either
help Mr Gove achieve his ambition, or frustrate his aim.
As the Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd John Pritchard, recently
told a private schools conference: "The dual system is bust." He
was referring to the relationship between the Church of England and
the government department responsible for schools, a relationship
that was crafted more than 70 years ago, and found expression in
the 1944 Education Act. But, because the C of E understood the
value of schooling for all, before the State was prepared to pay
for it; and because it created a national system of schools rooted
in their communities but run by the Church, it still provides
thousands of primary schools nationwide.
WHAT the Church needs now is consistent countrywide policy about
its primary schools. Should they become academies en masse, or
operate according to local policy within an overarching national
framework? Without an overall plan, dioceses will make their own
arrangements, resulting in a replay of the fragmentation that
occurred, 50 years ago, over the shape of secondary education - a
debate that has never been fully resolved.
I confess to being in favour of primary schooling's remaining
the responsibility of local government; and, in the case of church
schools, in partnership with dioceses - the more so now that parts
of the Health Budget have been devolved to local commissioning
groups. The links between early-childhood health, welfare, and
education needs effective oversight and joined-up policy-making.
Managing one policy area from Westminster while devolving other
policy areas to local groups seems nonsense.
Where I live, this view is held across the political spectrum.
It is rumoured that, in Lancashire, Conservatives rebuffed DfE
representatives sent to woo schools into becoming academies.
Another area where the Church urgently needs to review its
policy is on teacher training - especially if, as I have previously
predicted in these columns, employers are once again to be
responsible for training teachers, after half a century when the
responsibility lay with higher-education institutions.
The Church needs to ensure its supply of teachers for its
schools now, because over the next decade there will be a vast
increase in the numbers of school-age children, creating the
second-largest primary-school population since the end of the
Second World War. The new framework of Teaching Schools, and School
Direct training places, advocated by Mr Gove, may work in the
secondary sector, but I doubt whether it can be effective in the
much larger number of primary schools.
THE church universities will need to play an active part in
providing relevant preparation for primary school teachers; a
thorough review of their training needs is long overdue. Moreover,
the Church could press for a fair funding system for trainee
teachers, to replace the present chaotic situation where two
trainees, in adjacent classrooms, can in one case be paid a salary,
while the other pays £9000 in fees, and receives no bursary.
There are periods of stability in the history of education when
the main issues are bureaucratic in nature. That is not the case at
present, and the Church must ensure that its approach is grounded
in clear principles, accepting that the former status quo is
Whether in the governance of schools, the curriculum, teacher
training and development, or pay and conditions, the Church of
England should provide a clear lead. In doing so, it must take heed
of the messages from the pews as much as from the
Professor John Howson is a Liberal Democrat county
councillor in Oxfordshire, where he speaks for his party on
children's services. His career in education spans more than 40
years, and his blog on education matters can be found at johnohowson.wordpress.com.