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Church schools want ballots, too

The Government is in danger of looking both anti-democratic and ignorant, says Judith Judd
How did the Prime Minister ever come to be saddled with the notion that church schools should be allowed to become grant maintained without a parental ballot? Perhaps it was through some misguided notion that the Church of England is still the Tory party at prayer and that church school governors are all nice white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who would leap at the chance of backing one of the Conservatives' favourite policies.

The reality is different. Ever since the Thatcher government came to power 16 years ago, there have been differences between the Church of England and the Conservatives about everything from the Falklands war to what children should be taught about God. So far the Anglican church, which has most of the country's church schools, has remained officially neutral, arguing that parents should be left to decide their own fate.

Behind the scenes, however, bishops and church officials take a less sanguine view. Rab Butler's 1944 Education Act, which established the present arrangements for church schools, has served them well. They have more independence than county schools because they control their own admissions. They have a majority of church-appointed governors on the governing body. Their running costs are paid by the state and they contribute just 15 per cent of the costs of external maintenance and building. What is to be gained by opting out?

Greater independence, the Prime Minister suggested, revealing his ignorance about church schools. They are mostly primary schools, many of them small, that rely on both the dioceses and, in some places, the local authority to help them out in times of trouble. They are not straining at the leash to be free from outside control and they often have close connections with their communities and neighbouring schools.

Or maybe John Major thought that cash-strapped churches would like to be free of that 15 per cent contribution, at a cost to the Treasury of upwards of pounds 10m. Not so. Unlike politicians, the churches take a long view and see opting out as a threat to church schools' independence. Once a school opts out, the church ceases to pay its 15 per cent contribution. All the capital comes from the Government. It is not fanciful to suppose that a future government might argue that a church which had no financial commitment to its schools had no right to the privileges of control it now enjoys.

Even if the Prime Minister and his advisers can be forgiven for failing to understand the workings of the churches' minds, their difficulty in grasping the effect of his proposal to abolish parental ballots is bewildering. Why deny to church school parents the rights enjoyed by the parents of every other child? They instantly become second-class citizens who can be told what to do by their governors. Another option in the Government's consultation paper is even worse: it suggests that all church schools would be assumed to have opted out unless they voted to stay with the local authority. In other words, ministers would decide what was best for schools that have long prided themselves on their independence.

It is anti-democratic and it is a reflection of the muddle ministers are in over their whole opting-out policy. When Margaret Thatcher first proposed opting out, she suggested that schools would be falling over themselves to opt out and that the policy would be as popular as council house sales. Instead, persuading schools to opt out has proved an uphill struggle. The result is a mess which the Government calls "diversity" and a debate in the Conservative Party about where to go next. The party is split over whether to abandon ballots and the slogan of parental choice, which is the keystone of its education policy, and compel all secondary schools to opt out.

The fury unleashed by the church schools' proposals suggests that whatever policy it chooses will be unpopular. If ministers had said in 1988, when opting out was introduced, that they would fund all secondary schools from the centre, they might have won some support at a time when local authorities were more unpopular than they are today. Now a decision to take away votes from parents will be seen for what it is: a resort to force where persuasion has failed.