The Bishop of Oxford has announced that 3,360 (or 70% ) of the Church of England’s 4,800 schools plan to convert to academy status within five years. The Bishop claims that, as well as supporting its own schools, the church is likely to provide a range of services to non-faith schools. The exodus of Church of England schools from local authority control comes in the wake of a deal between church leaders and the Government that removed obstacles to their schools becoming academies. Previously, they had been worried that valuable land would revert from the diocese to individual governing bodies if they opted for a change in status. The Bishop said the deal would still give them powers over appointing governors and allow them to protect the schools' Christian character.
Back in January, Michael Gove announced that four out of eight free schools to have won formal approval to open would have a religious agenda – a Jewish primary school in north London, A Hindu primary school in Leicester, St Luke's church of England primary in Camden, and the Discovery new school in West Sussex, which will have an Anglican ethos and also offer a Montessori curriculum.
That Gove is determined to polarise education and encourage covert or overt selection was laid bare recently in an article for the Catholic Herald, in which he openly recommended that Catholic schools should transfer to academy status to put them “out of reach of meddling secularists”. His stance reveals the truth behind the myth that choice is all in his education reform. If the role of the local authority is taken over by the church, there will be little choice for those who do not want their children to receive a heavily biased education.
Even worse, his alliance with the church does not suggest that his motive was to give greater opportunities to disadvantaged children - the Bishop admitted last month that religious schools achieve their league-topping results by using privileged admissions criteria to select the best pupils. Although he said he would like to open up church schools to more non-Anglicans by reserving only 10% of places for children for church-goers, he also admitted that no such restrictions would be put forward in the Church of England guidance to be issued later in the year.
It is undesirable that the government is giving churches a disproportionate amount of control of our publicly-funded education system, especially while church attendance is in freefall and unconvincing that churches will not use schools for proselytising. If the Bishop‘s predictions about the demise of local education authorities turns out to be correct, it could result in currently non-religious schools becoming beholden to church school administrators for assistance, which will inevitably come with religious demands attached.
Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular society said, “A mass conversion of voluntary controlled schools into entirely self-governing academies freed from the moderating influence of local authorities will be the churches’ dream and most parents’ nightmare.”