AFTER a General Election where education - and especially
schooling - did not really feature as an aspect of the national
campaign, the ministerial line-up remains broadly the same. Despite
the lack of discussion about education during the campaign,
however, the Government is already embarking on changes that will
have far reaching implications, including for the Church of
England, in the traditional part it plays as provider of much of
primary education across parts of England.
Just as Michael Gove startled the education establishment in
2010 by rapidly securing the passing of the Academies Act through
Parliament in the weeks between the General Election in May 2010
and the summer recess; so, with an Education Bill in the Queen's
Speech, his successor seems likely to do the same.
Creating a school system that is world class is an aspiration
that fits well with current Conservative thinking. But achieving
this by nationalising failing, or even coasting schools will
threaten the place of the Church of England in the education
system. For more than half a century, the system of Church-founded
schools funded by the State, but operated by the churches under the
guise of voluntary status, went largely unchallenged. Eventually,
the system will demand that all schools are academies.
THE Labour Government under Tony Blair started the
transformation of the school system from that established under the
1944 Education Act, to the system now evolving of state control by
setting up the academy programme to allow failing schools to be
taken over by sponsors.
The Church of England was happy to assist, especially where it
increased its number of secondary schools.
Mr Gove then built on the sponsored-academy programme in the
2010 Academies Act by allowing successful schools to become
converter academies, either individually or as a part of a
multi-academy trust. In doing so, he fundamentally weakened the
bond between Church and State.
Where, previously, diocesan education officers had worked
closely with local authorities - especially in the primary sector,
where the Church of England primary school was often also the
school for all the local community - now, the relationship is
between the school, or Trust, and the DfE, via the centrally
controlled funding agency; the diocese plays a lesser part. And,
since last year, the agent of the DfE has been one of the eight
appointed regional commissioners.
HOW much the balance has shifted became clear earlier this year,
when one academy chain closed for financial reasons, and another
arbitrarily announced the closure of a school. In the past, closing
a school meant a period of consultation, and often a vigorous
campaign in support of keeping it open.
If the legislation exists that allows schools and sponsors to
behave in such a unilateral manner with academies, it is logical to
expect the DfE to take similar powers over schools it funds that
are converted into academies, if it considers that they are not
Should it consider many church schools to be coasting, as the
performance level is progressively raised each year to the point
where every child will be expected to reach Level 4 in English and
maths by the age of 11, then the Church of England - and also the
other Churches responsible for schools - could see many of their
schools forcibly converted to academies that cease to be
responsible to their diocese, or even to the Church.
Depending on how the legislation is worded, the new Act
announced in the Queen's Speech could affect the long-term
ownership of the buildings, and possibly even the land that the
school stands on. Poorly worded legislation could deprive the
Church of England of any legal title to schools, or even their
site, once they have been taken over by the State.
If this were the case, the Church might have to rethink
fundamentally its contract with the Government, perhaps by allowing
it to buy places only at what were essentially once again
independent schools. This would have important implications for
capital funding for building work in the future, if the State was
no longer prepared to pay for such work.
THE potential bombshell resulting from a lack of understanding
of the place of the C of E in the school system of England has
emerged from a Conservative manifesto that was remarkably thin on
education, compared with some other areas. Certainly, nationalising
schools was not mentioned as a possibility.
The main plank of the manifesto seemed to be an acceptance of
the need to keep funding at current levels. Many schools may feel
that this is, in practice, a squeeze on their incomes over the next
It will also be difficult to claim that many secondary schools
are better off if a significant increase in the number of free
schools, university technical colleges, and studio schools deprives
existing schools of a proportion of their older (14-to-18) pupils,
and the funding that goes with them. A loss of income from this
group could affect significantly the viability of some.
Whether the Conservatives have also ruled out any expansion of
grammar schools will be an early test for the Secretary of State.
Supporters will argue that the commitment to allow good schools to
expand must include selective schools. Opponents will counter with
the arguments that a system of selection at the age of 11, created
when only a small percentage of pupils remained in education beyond
the age of 14, is long past its sell-by date.
All students are now expected to remain in some form of learning
until they are 18; so it seems odd to limit opportunities at 11.
The emerging 14-to-18 sector offers a new way forward, but probably
will not appease the most ardent supporters of grammar schools.
PROPOSED legislation on the curriculum seems to represent
ministers' determination to make the achievement of Level 4 the
goal for all primary-school leavers, with resits for those who do
not make the grade. The likely push towards the EBacc may be
tempered by the concerns over teacher supply.
Indeed, ensuring that there are enough teachers to carry out
this rolling improvement programme may be the top issue in the
Secretary of State's in-tray. Whether a new quango will be created
to oversee teacher supply may well be a measure of how seriously
the Secretary of State takes the possibility of a crisis.
The issue, then, of being nice to the existing workforce and
trying to improve retention might be high on the Government's
agenda; there may also be a push on reducing the workload. But
without pay rises it is difficult to see how the Government can
make teachers love it.
Universities are still absorbing the effects of the removal of
the cap on undergraduate numbers. Of more immediate concern to the
Cathedral Group of church universities may be the direction of
Any reduction in their allocation of ITT places, resulting from
a greater emphasis on school-based preparation, could bite into
their funding. If, however, other vice-chancellors follow the route
taken by Bath and the Open University, and pull out of teacher
education, Cathedral Group members would be well placed to fill the
John Howson is a visiting professor at Oxford Brookes