Education: Volunteers resist conflict of church and state

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The Independent Online
A football carelessly kicked from the playground of Elton Church of England Primary School, high in the Derbyshire Peak District, would land among the ancient gravestones of the churchyard next door. Separated by no more than three feet of dry stone wall, All Saints' Church and the tiny 32-pupil primary could not huddle much closer against the raw Pennine winds if they tried.

Both church and school, linked since the stone schoolhouse was built by pounds 600 public subscription in 1862, like it that way. Elton is voluntary- controlled - part of that little-understood category of schools whose buildings are owned by the diocese but, unlike those of their voluntary- aided neighbours, are maintained by the local education authority.

Under proposals in the Government's White Paper, however, voluntary controlled schools are expected to move to a "foundation" category, created primarily to accommodate grant-maintained schools. The change would mean looser links with LEAs and more responsibility for governors over matters such as staff and admissions.

Elton's head, Jenny Newton, and governing body have no desire for such a switch. After voting repeatedly each year against any move towards opting out, governors resent being bundled into the same category as grant-maintained schools.

The tough demands on the governing body would, they feel, become too onerous to place on a group of volunteers under foundation status. Mick Patterson, chairman of governors and a church warden at All Saints', is concerned that a school with just two full-time teachers could not afford mistaken appointments made by inexperienced governors. And, in a village of only 450 people, would enough volunteers be found to take on the governing burden? "In truth, parents really only want to be involved enough in school to be sure their children are getting a good education," Mr Patterson says. "They do not want to be giving up hours of free time helping run things themselves."

The head is concerned that handing governing bodies more control over admissions could open the way to increased selection. Mrs Newton said: "Our relative isolation means we take children from the surrounding area, but oversubscribed schools ... may be tempted to pick and choose."

One alternative would be to take on aided status. But Elton has rejected that option amid concerns that it would be unable to find the resources needed to contribute at least 15 per cent towards capital spending.

All in all, Elton and Derbyshire's 78 other voluntary controlled schools agree, they would much rather shake off intervention from Westminster and stay as they are, contentedly on good terms with both diocese and LEA. "They want to put us all neatly into new boxes, with no little quirks, but the fact is we are all different," says Mr Patterson. "I would hold up our superb Ofsted report and say `Improve on that'."

- Lucy Ward