Church schools look poised to lead swing to opting-out (CORRECTED)

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Indy Politics

THE PROSPECT of church schools leading the next swathe of schools to opt out of local authority control was raised yesterday by John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education.

While giving evidence to the House of Commons education select committee, Mr Patten went out of his way to note that several voluntary-aided schools have recently announced plans to ballot parents on opting out.

He also pointed out that some clerics, who have previously criticised the Government's opting out policy, were beginning to see that churches stand to make significant savings, and gain considerable autonomy, by opting out.

Roughly one in ten state schools is voluntary-aided or voluntary-controlled: more than 2,500 out of 23,000. In some areas, they form an even higher proportion; one out of three in London, for example. Most are Anglican or Roman Catholic, but a small number are Jewish. Other voluntary- controlled schools are partly funded by ancient foundations.

Ministers have long suspected that opting out will only take off in some areas if one or two schools take the lead. If the church leaders who govern voluntary-aided schools switch tack, and start to promote grant-maintained status because they see a clear financial advantage, their opt-outs could trigger a domino effect among other nearby schools.

The main attraction for voluntary-aided schools is that the churches stand to save the 15 per cent they now have to contribute towards maintenance and buildings. Under proposals to be incorporated in the Government's education Bill - to be published within the next few days - the new Funding Agency for grant- maintained schools will foot the whole maintenance bill for opted- out church schools, without churches losing any of their governing control. For a normal secondary school, that can represent savings of several thousand pounds a year on the diocesan budget. Opting out is therefore much more attractive to voluntary-aided schools than other local authority-funded schools.

Mr Patten told the select committee that two Roman Catholic secondary schools in Sheffield were considering opting out - All Saints, and Notre Dame - following a recommendation from Monsignor John Ryan, the diocesan education commissioner. Although he did not mention it to the committee, his department is also watching closely the ballot of parents at the Jewish Free School in Camden, north London, and two Catholic secondary schools in Hounslow, west London.

Earlier this month, Bishop David Konstant, chairman of the Catholic Education Service, said that the church's official attitude to opting out was becoming 'less uneasy'. Similar statements have been made by diocesan authorities in Southwark, south London. The Church in Wales has also seen the advantages.

Mr Patten told the committee that 312 schools have now opted out, or been approved, with a further 150 having voted in favour. He predicted that, on present trends, 1,500 schools will have opted out by April 1994.

The training of primary school teachers will not be reformed until September 1994, giving the Government time to work out exactly how it is to change the system, Baroness Blatch, Minister of State for Education, said yesterday.


In an article 'Church schools look poised to lead swing to opting-out' on 29 October it was incorrectly stated that one in ten state-funded schools are voluntary-aided or voluntary- controlled; in fact, the figure is 31 per cent in England.