The church, school admissions and some interesting questions about autonomy and governance

Fiona Millar's picture
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.

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Helen Flynn's picture
Mon, 09/05/2011 - 12:03

Not just lack of autonomy through growth of academy chains, etc, Fiona, but what about the proposed (in the current Education Bill) growth of the Secretary of State's powers? There truly will be no local accountability left.
Also the "presumption" in the Bill that all new schools required in an area should be an academy, and that a community school can only be proposed as a last resort, is highly, highly suspect and deeply undemocratic.
See here for CASE's response to the Bill which is in effect a commentary on the most egregious aspects of the Bill and should serve as a wake-up call--before it's too late--to all who are interested in a locally accountable, joined up education system.

Tokyo Nambu's picture
Tue, 10/05/2011 - 09:04

"There truly will be no local accountability left."

What is local accountability? The link from my local councillor to my local school is tenuous at best, and presumes that were I unhappy about its admission policy I could find another candidate who could articulate an alternative position, and whose policies on other matters didn't make me puke (suppose my local BNP candidate were a staunch advocate of local schools: should I vote for him?)

The idea that a link back through several lays of "appointed by" and "reports to" to councillors provides effective accountability is weak, I'm afraid: you elect councillors and MPs on too broad a platform for individual matters of school governance to by campaigning issues. I thought a lot of education policy promoted by the last Labour government was appalling, and I didn't like ID Cards much either: I nonetheless voted Labour last year (as, to prove my loyalty, I did even in 1983) because voting for minor parties on the basis of a single policy just gets you a Tory government (as Lib Dem voters who claimed that they liked Clegg's education policies are now realising).

I don't know what the answer is, but I think to claim that local authorities provide strong, accountable governance is a policy wonk thing: for most people, they are the opposite of transparent.

Helen Flynn's picture
Thu, 02/06/2011 - 22:38

I agree that local accountability as it stands at the moment is not perfect, but it is better than massive centralisation, as is happening at the moment.

To only have recourse to the Secretary of State is unacceptable. Yes, we do have to make local politicians (a) more representative and (b) more meaningfully accountable (both, by the way, massively achievable--look at most countries in Western Europe). But central government since Thatcher (and continued under New Labour) has been hell bent on removing local powers and funding (despite current rhetoric re: localism--not localism in fact, but paternalism).

What means more to people now on a day-to-day basis is what's happening very locally to them and what is happening internationally, now that we live in a globalised world. We have to cling on to local accountability and try as hard as we can to reinforce it, or else it will be lost for quite a long time to our detriment.

Maire Lowe's picture
Wed, 19/10/2011 - 08:20

I only came across this thread when reading the latest on the Vaughan scandal h.ttp:// if interested.
Fiona is misinformed about the strength of the opposition to the Archbishops plans for this distinguished school. Certainly her sparring partner Toby young objected, but more than 700 parents wrote personally to the Archbishop as did many distinguined politians, journalists, writers, and members of the general public who disliked the bullying approach. Finally the Secretary of State for Education has intervened for which we are all grateful. It is rather amusing to find Fiona and the Archbishop on the same side for once This suggests that both have the arrogance to assume a natural right to dictate to parents, pupils and teachers and to refuse to acknowledge any objections. Never a wise move for the Catholic church of course. Let us hope that with the capitulation of the Archbishop however ungracefully, that we will see a slightly more reasonable approach, not just from him but from Fiona toor. Nanny does not always know best..

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