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A clear policy is our primary need

07 June 2013

The Church of England needs to develop an overall plan on the provision of primary education, to avoid past mistakes and meet the forthcoming population challenge, says John Howson


In a university classroom

In a university classroom

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 Education.

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 outdated.

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 politicians.

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.


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