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Education: Coping with the Gove legacy

06 February 2015

John Howson thinks that the Church has to adapt to a new school landscape


Last gasp: the former Education Secretary Michael Gove, now Chief Whip, campaigning in front of a shop window in Rochester last October

Last gasp: the former Education Secretary Michael Gove, now Chief Whip, campaigning in front of a shop window in Rochester last October

AS WE enter 2015, it is hard to believe that we are in the last months of a Coalition Government that will have lasted for a full parliamentary term of five years.

Much has changed in the world of education since 2010, even though schools, unlike tuition fees, were not a significant feature of the 2010 election campaign.

In May 2010, Michael Gove arrived as a Secretary of State in a hurry. He piloted the first main piece of legislation, the 2010 Academies Act, through Parliament, before MPs and peers had even reached their summer holidays.

This piece of legislation allowed successful schools to opt for the freedoms of academy status, and built on the Labour government's previous programme of sponsored academies.

It also created a new class of school: "additional", or "free" as they have universally become known. These schools allowed anyone to seek state funding for a school, with almost no rules, except that admissions could not be completely restricted to a particular group in society. In some areas of the country, these schools have become largely the province of religious groups.

Less commonly, they have been started by parents and others dissatisfied with the local school system, who are not prepared to work for change within the existing system.

AFTER an initial flourish, and oodles of public money, the number of such schools, has, in most areas, subsided to a trickle. Where they have been most prominent is in areas where there is pressure on primary-school places, owing to a bulge in the birth rate.

The Church of England has opened schools under the "free school" banner, and there are Jewish and Muslim free schools as well.

What is noticeable about the free schools now listed by the DfE, however, is the increasing number of schools for those aged 14 to 18, or 16 to 18, rather than primary or secondary schools, as originally intended. The 14-18 schools fall into two categories: studio schools, and University Technical Colleges. Both types are vocational in concept, and likely to take pupils at 14 from neighbouring schools, including church schools.

Like many of the innovations during this Parliament, there is little evidence of rational planning. In some areas, several such schools have been established, while other localities remain relatively free from change.

One reform that has affected all parts of England is the establishment of a nationwide network of Regional Commissioners, responsible for the development of all types of academy. Unlike their Police and Crime Commissioner colleagues, the education commissioners are unelected: they are appointed by the DfE, although with elected support from among other heads in their region. Commissioners will not necessarily have a background understanding of the voluntary sector and its historical place in the school system.

Taken together, these significant changes have cut dramatically the part played by local authorities in education. The Church of England, too, has learned that it can no longer assume that the partnership hammered out with the government in 1944 - which still has legal force - and the existence of the voluntary sector will continue unchallenged.

THE Church, after largely acquiescing as the school system in England changed beyond recognition under a Secretary of State determined to create a market-based system freed from the shackles of those he once labelled "blobs", needs to clarify its educational policy.

This Government appears finally to have broken the cosy relationship between Church and State brokered all those years ago by R. A. Butler, in the 1944 Education Act.

The part played by the Churches, and especially the Church of England, as major providers of primary schooling across England, cannot last in its present format for much longer. Surely it is time for a complete reappraisal of the part played by faith groups in our education system.

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