The Bishop of Oxford, the new chair of the C of E’s Board of Education, has certainly been busy as Allan Beavis points out here
. Firstly suggesting that C of E schools should have a long hard look at some of their more exclusive faith admissions criteria
, then announcing that all its schools would become academies
in the next few years. However his statements raise interesting questions about what we really mean by school autonomy and local governance.
I agree with the Bishop's take on faith based admissions. Many faith schools are socially inclusive – often educating children from a wide variety of faiths and social backgrounds. Some of the primaries in my loca area educate a high proportion of Muslim children for example.
Others, however, are predominantly white, with very low numbers of pupils eligible for free school smeals. And remember Michael Gove's favourite head teacher, Alice Hudson, explaining here
that her C of E secondary school, Twyford in West London, recruits from a very large area and admits a larger than average proportion of children who, in days gone by, would have gone to grammar schools. There are plenty of other examples of faith schools that subtly use admissions to engineer their intakes, socially and academically, in a way that undermines the Church’s original mission to educate the poor and needy.
However admissions in all non-local authority schools are in theory the responsibility of those schools governing bodies ( as is the decision to opt for academy status) and NOT the responsibility of their sponsoring bodies, whether this is an academy trust or a Diocesan board so the Bishop is partly right when he says that he can't directly influence what individual schools choose to do in this area.
However those Diocesan boards, trusts and sponsoring bodies also have the right to appoint the majority of the governors so while the Church may not be able to intervene directly, it may be able to exercise influence indirectly as this recent story about the highly sought after Cardinal Vaughan Catholic School
in West London reveals. To cut a long story short, a small group of parents and governors wanted to challenge the right of the Catholic Diocese of Westminster to appoint the majority of governors to their school, because they feared the Diocese might put pressure on the school to be more inclusive. This group tried judicially reviewing the Church's procedures , lost, went to appeal, and lost again, with the judges upholding the legal right of the Church to appoint governors to its schools in this way.
Of course some of these disputes would not arise if we could agree that faith schools should continue to exist but be required to open their doors to all, without using spurious tests of church attendance that are so easy to abuse. But the Bishop's comments and the Cardinal Vaughan case both point to the complex and unforeseen consequences that can arise in 'autonomous' schools whose governance is in fact controlled by the powerful bodies that lie behind them and have the legal right to control the governing body. It will be very interesting to see how far both Catholic and Anglican churches are prepared to use these powers to influence the admissions procedures of their schools.
There is also no getting away from the fact that this type of governance structure is a fundamental feature of independent and semi autonomous state schools and quite amusing that some diehard supporters of this sort of autonomy, like Toby Young, appear to object to the consequences ( here)
when it leads to the sort of outcomes they don't like.
The conflict about what autonomy means, where there is a more powerful higher body, will eventually be driven home forcibly to many schools currently opting out of the maintained sector and into the control of chains and multiple academy groups, which may leave them with less freedom than they would have had within a local authority framework, and with governing bodies that are effectively puppets of bigger, more remote organisations, as one former academy head articulated so clearly here.