Yet more changes?

by
05 June 2015

Poorly thought-out legislation could put the Church in conflict with the Government over ownership, warns John Howson

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.

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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 performing.

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 few years.

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 teacher training. 

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 gap. 

 

John Howson is a visiting professor at Oxford Brookes University.

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