ONE of the jewels in the crown of the Church of England’s relationship with the State is the network of C of E schools. They provide a distinctive and inclusive education to about one million children, who are brought up to respect other people’s religions and beliefs. One cannot imagine Muslim women being banned from wearing burkinis on English beaches; how faith is taught in schools, and the Church and religious bodies relate to the State, must have something to do with that.
Good law, well drafted and precisely updated, is the bedrock of a stable and yet creative society. In respect of the part played by schools, the Government is certainly committed at this moment to further legislation for the expansion of grammar schools. What continuing part (if any) should be played by local authorities? How can an effective national structure be created for the oversight and management of some 21,000 schools? All of this, and much more, demands systematic new law.
BUT a significant part of the educational system in England and Wales is the partnership between the State and a variety of private charitable bodies, of which the C of E is by far the largest. The law that regulates this relationship, therefore, must also be updated in the light of recent and possibly imminent legislation. The main existing statutory enactment, however, the Diocesan Boards of Education Measure 1991, is now more than 25 years old. It is in urgent need of revision.
Church and State need to look again at the DBE Measure because, to put it simply, their relationship needs to be refreshed for every generation, and articulated in fresh law. Because the measure is ecclesiastical legislation, it gives the General Synod a new opportunity to reflect on the Church’s position in our education system.
In terms of detail, the DBE Measure was drafted before academies were invented; so it is simply out of date. Once there are no more voluntary schools (after 2020 or so), the Measure will be empty of real powers.
Nowhere does the Measure mention school standards, or give the DBE and its diocesan directors any part in maintaining these standards. And yet, since the Academies Act of 2010, “standards” have been a key theme, and dioceses have been investing significant funds in establishing Church-owned multi-academy trusts to have modern structures to address these issues.
The DBE Measure also sets out an outdated model for the make-up of boards of education, although this can be varied with the approval of the bishop, diocesan synod, and the Education Secretary. Many boards now seek to change the statutory model, as they find it too cumbersome, and out of step with a skills-based governance structure. In this respect, too, the Measure is no longer fit for its purpose.
THE Church, then, has new questions to consider: should a new DBE Measure be the place where new law on assemblies and collective worship sits? Church of England schools were established to serve local communities as a whole; perhaps a new DBE Measure should outline basic principles about faith admissions as they relate specifically to Church of England schools. The advent of academies also means that the law on trustee land when schools move premises (or are closed) also needs updating. A range of technical details need to be addressed.
Recent policy announcements set out an aspiration for a new schools system. Systematic new legislation, including new Church of England legislation, is the necessary consequence.
Howard Dellar is head of the Ecclesiastical, Education and Charities department of Lee Bolton Monier William, Solicitors.