Education: New challenge for education

by
07 February 2014

Changes looming within education provide plenty of challenges for church schools and universities to get to grips with, says John Howson

CHURCH schools are on the brink of an extended period of expansion. While they remain popular with parents - and it's impossible to remember a time when they were not - very few schools will have to worry about empty places.

During the course of this decade, about 800,000 extra pupils will swell the school population, mainly in the primary sector, where the Church of England is a key provider of school places.

After 2015, rolls for the secondary sector will also start to increase, as the first of the birth-rate bulge of the past few years moves to Year 7. Indeed, secondary schools will see their rolls increasing right through into the early part of the next decade, and for even longer than that if the birth rate does not return to its usual levels.

With the growth in pupil numbers, however, come some attendant problems. The first is that church schools will be under as much pressure to improve standards as any other school.

OFSTED no longer takes kindly to schools that are coasting. Evidence that heads are running a happy ship will no longer be enough when inspectors come to call.

They will need proof of a real commitment by heads, teachers, and governors, to effective teaching and learning for all children. Fortunately, this is always easier for schools where parents have to strive to obtain a place for their child than at those forced to take all-comers.That is why some urban church schools perform better than some of their more rural counterparts, where the church school is in fact the primary school for the community.

The likely cutbacks in free transport in rural areas will certainly affect church schools, especially secondary schools. Most local authorities removed the right to free travel to denominational schools some time ago.

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Now, in the face of further cutbacks in their own funding, many councils are planning to pay for no more than travel to the nearest school with a place available. (New types of schools, by setting their own catchment areas, could otherwise land authorities with what would effectively be a blank cheque.)

 

A MORE compelling concern for the Church of England's Education Division is the uncertainty of who is actually shaping our school system.

The announcement by the Department for Education, just before Christmas, of eight new School Commissioner posts, with regional responsibilities that cover areas as broad as Islington to West Oxfordshire, and another covering much of the north of England, provides yet more evidence of a move towards a national education system managed from Whitehall, in the same manner as the NHS.

These unelected officials will potentially wield much power, and a commissioner unsympathetic to denominational schools could wreak much damage.

How the Church, centrally, or through the dioceses, will relate to this sea-change in the school system is an interesting question. I do not recall much - if any - public debate about such a transfer of power. It has attracted less discussion, even, than the limited debate over the introduction of Police and Crime Commissioners, in 2011; and not everyone regards their appointments as value for money.

It is planned that School Commissioners will each be advised by a board of, possibly, six head teachers elected by all heads in their region. That might be three primary and two secondary heads, plus one representing special schools; or a board could consist of just six secondary heads.

Diocesan education officers should already be planning to ensure that at least one, if not more, of the board members is from the church-school sector.

The Church could consider a more radical alternative. It could ask the Government to let church schools become a new type of free school, outside the mainstream state-funded academy system. After all, free schools are supposed to be fulfilling the wishes of parents, and who can say that over-subscribed church schools are not achieving exactly the same goal?

This approach would help in opening new schools, since at present the dynamics of decision-making are centralised in the hands of the politicians at Westminster, not all of whom may fully recognise the part played by the Church in education.

 

AS IF the organisation of schooling was not enough to worry about, the issue of staffing - and especially the preparation of teachers, which is already problematic - could become more so.

The Government is currently transferring this role from higher education to schools. While this may work for the secondary sector, I am doubtful about how effective it will be for the preparation of new primary school teachers.

The Church, responsible for one in four primary schools, might want to use its influence to ensure that there is neither a shortfall of new teachers nor a lowering of the quality of their training.

The move to school-based teacher-training may have alarmed the church universities, many of whom rely heavily on this training for large amounts of their income.

They will have been mollified to some extent by the decision, announced before Christmas, to remove, over the next few years, the cap on university student numbers. This will be especially welcome as the number of 18-year-olds will decline between now and the end of the decade.

The only concern must be that some universities will take the opportunity to grow even larger at the expense of their smaller competitors, among which are some of the church universities.

Finally, as the main political parties gear up for the 2015 General Election, the Church of England might like to reflect upon what it would like to see included in their manifestos.

Seeking a firmer place for Religious Education, both at examination level in secondary schools, and throughout the school curriculum, would be a good place to start.

As the All-Party Parliamentary Group found last year, many new primary teachers receive scant training in teaching the subject, even when on a higher-education course. If trained in schools, some might receive no effective training at all.

 

Professor John Howson is managing director of Education Data Surveys, part of the TSL Group, and a visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Education in the University of Oxford.

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