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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Letter to School Organisation & Governance Division DfES

15th April 2003

Dear Mr Sweetmore

Consultation on School Organisation Planning and Decision Making

I have pleasure in enclosing our Submission, as follows.

Yours sincerely,

Keith Porteous Wood
Executive Director

Executive Summary & Principal Recommendations

The National Secular Society is extremely concerned about, and oppose, the proposal to halve to one month the period of time available for objections/representations to school reorganisations. The Church of England is promoting a major expansion of religious schools, but is actively suppressing the information about its plans. We therefore recommend that:

1. information on school reorganisations be mandatorily posted on the new SOC website as part of the formal representation procedure, with the notice period not starting until this is done.

2. the periods of representation be standardised at eight weeks, excluding holidays and times of disruption*.

The full recommendations are tabulated on page 4 below.

THE CONTEXT

(i) A time of unprecedented change

The Society has had serious reservations for some about the effectiveness of local consultation on school organisation changes. This has now become a much more pressing problem with major increase in the proportion of religious schools. The Church of England, for example, has embarked on a plan for 100 new secondary schools, of which it says: "Perhaps as never before in 50 years, the Church has a great opportunity to pursue and develop its mission to the nation through it schools ".

Despite the scale of this expansion and paucity of information available about it, the CofE is reported to have instructed its dioceses not to give advance warning to opponents of any plans for new church schools .

This calls into question the sincerity of the Established Church's commitment to a "spirit of openness and genuine debate" over the opening of new church schools. The Church's secrecy is self-interested and disingenuous, given especially that these schools are being opened with the investment of millions of pounds of public funds.

As, unfortunately, the Established Church cannot be relied upon to act in a straight-forward and open way at the time of the greatest expansion of CofE schools for a century, the DfES needs to take active steps to increase public awareness about school organisation changes and to foster informed local debate about the expansion proposals among those who will be paying for these schools.

(ii) Unprecedented public concern

The population is deeply concerned about at least one aspect of schools organisation changes: increases in the number the proliferation of religious schools. One large survey (by YouGov) showed that 81% of the population were uncomfortable with a proliferation of religious schools. Newspaper articles and correspondence columns carried hundreds, if not thousands, of column inches on the merits or otherwise about publicly funded religious schools before and during the passage of the Education Bill. More of the limited amount of Commons debating time available for the Education Bill was taken up with the issue of religious schools than with any other matter, despite them not being referred to directly in the Bill. Amendments to the Bill on this subject designed to limit the powers of such schools drew the largest Labour revolt until then in that parliament. We can provide further evidence if required to illustrate the contentiousness over religious schools, not just among secularists and humanists, but in the population as a whole.

(iii) Undue influence of the dioceses in local education matters

Were the reduction in minimum consultation period to be pressed through, it would further move the balance of advantage in favour of CofE and Roman Catholic Church who are already in a privileged position in respect of the existing requirement that they be individually informed of any changes to school reorganisations.

This also raises the question of the disproportionately large number of seats available to CofE and RC representatives on SOCs, who although not elected by local people, have the power in most circumstances even to veto reductions in denominational places, even where this might conflict with the interests of the LEA as a whole. These concerns gives rise to our third and fourth recommendations.

THE PROPOSED REDUCTION

(i) What the Government/Department has undertaken to do:

In the light of the concerns expressed in Parliament and in consultations, the Government has indicated that no new faith schools would be approved until the local community had been consulted: "We wish to welcome faith schools, with their distinctive ethos and character, into the maintained sector where there is clear local agreement. … Decisions to establish faith schools should take account of the interests of all sections of the community .

(ii) What will happen if, as proposed, the notice period is halved:

Quite often local people are worried about school reorganisations, but do not know how to make their concerns known. It can be a time-consuming process for them to find out the appropriate procedures, identify others of like mind, consult them, and formulate their objections/make alternative suggestions. A one month period is inadequate for this, especially if this month occurs in holiday periods or near the start or end of terms.

This assessment would be valid even if the information were made readily available, but it is not, given the reported deliberate obstruction by the Church of England of opponents of the wave of additional religious schools. Given this and the proposal to reduce DfES representation periods about the establishment of new schools or reorganisations, it will be very difficult, and in some cases impossible, for the views of the local communities at large to be brought to bear on these issues. By the time most local people find out about the plans and before they develop any response, the plans will often be a fait accompli, or at least most will have missed any prospect of making a representation.

On the other hand, those who are sympathetic to the schools or have a vested interest in their establishment are likely to have been informed by their own diocesan authorities who alone are required to be given notice of any proposed changes to school organisations.

(iii) The justification for the reduction

The sole justification we have seen for the reduction is that it is "in order to speed the decision-making process" , but as we have demonstrated above, the local consultation process is already too weak, and would be made almost token by the reduction. We have also described below how existing notice periods coinciding with holidays or times of disruption will, whether by accident or design, minimise the opportunities for meaningful consultation. When these are halved to one month, the consultation would become a mere token gesture.

We believe that the appropriate response of the Department to the unprecedented change and heightened public awareness would be to increase its responsiveness to the concerns of the whole community.

On the other hand, were the Government to press on with its proposal to halve to one month the statutory period within which any objections or representations to school reorganisations must be made, it would fly in the face its own White Paper undertaking to establish new faith schools "where there is clear local agreement" and to "take account of the interests of all sections of the community" . In effect, any reduction will be seen as a victory for bureaucrats who wish to press through unpopular changes.

(iv) What will be achieved by the reduction?

And the benefit from the change proposed? Saving just a month on a decision involving millions of pounds of public money that will fundamentally effect the local community for generations.

(v) We recommend that:

1. As part of the Government's commitment to open government and the enhanced provision of information available electronically, for school reorganisations to be mandatorily posted on the new SOC website as part of the formal representation procedure, with the notice period not starting until this is done.

2. the periods of representation be standardised at eight weeks excluding holidays and times of disruption, so as to reduce the possibilities of the periods occurring when there are substantially reduced opportunities for responses. (A suggested list of these periods is scheduled in Appendix 1). This longer period should also apply to new secondary schools, rather than the one month proposed.*

Further recommendations The following recommendations may fall outside the formal scope of the consultation, but are nevertheless are highly relevant to it and we ask that they also be brought to the attention of ministers:

3. the number of places available to CofE and RC diocesan nominees on SOCs be limited to the current minimum number, except where the LEA extends over more than one CofE or one RC diocese.

4. the right of dioceses to veto reduction in the proportion/number of denominational places be withdrawn

5. SOCs should be encouraged to use the Adjudicator as an 'honest broker' when particularly contentious proposals are being considered.*

* More detail given in Appendix 1

Appendix 1 Detail of recommendations 2 and 5:

Regulations 6, 7, 9, 11 and 15 etc. - currently provide that anyone can object to the draft Plan by writing to the authority within 2 months of publication. This will be amended to provide for comments as well as objections and to change the period for objections or comments on the Plan to 10 weeks.

We welcome the amendment of Regulation 6 that changes the period for objections or comments on the Plan to 10 weeks from the current phrase of "within 2 months of publication". The move from calendar months of varying lengths to weeks is more precise and fair.

We have recommended below clear rules to standardise the period for SOCs and SOP comments/objections/representations and avoid them covering holidays and periods of disruption.

Our recommendation results from frequently having observed proposals being published, perhaps inadvertently, just before a holiday period when parents, teachers, and Governors are more likely to be absent, or in the first week of a new term/during a festival when they will probably be distracted by more immediate issues. When this has occurred the consultation exercise has often failed in its purpose to obtain comments or objections, and the possibility of ill-considered decisions is thereby increased. Those closely involved who have been denied a voice (as they may see it) may also suffer from a demotivating resentment. In the eyes of many, the consultation process has fallen into such disrepute that those with good ideas to put forward are discouraged from doing so.

On the other hand, what we have recommended would be step towards rebuild much needed trust.

Such simplification might also usefully be considered for adoption as standard practice throughout the DfES's scope of influence.

We recommend an eight week minimum period of response to consultation documents pertaining to schools or the organisation of schools, excluding the following periods when there are substantially reduced opportunities for responses:

- From the second Friday of December until the second Monday of January

- From the to the Friday two weeks before the Good Friday holiday until the second Monday after the Easter Monday holiday

- From the second Friday of July until the second Monday of September.

Regulation 9 - Adjudicators

Whilst not strictly about this regulation the reference to groups disqualifying themselves because they have an interest in a proposal is an important point of concern. If the definition of 'interest' were taken too broadly or narrowly it could lead to bad decisions. There will be many occasions where changes to one school will impact on others - the provision is more like an organic network than a pattern of discrete units. On balance, we recommend that SOCs should be encouraged to use the Adjudicator as an 'honest broker' when particularly contentious proposals are being considered.

Appendix 2 Sources quoted

Schools - achieving success (DfES White Paper 2001)

We will encourage wider innovation in the provision of new schools

5.24 As well as City Academies we want to develop new ways of encouraging innovative schools within the state sector. We therefore propose that where an LEA identifies a need for a new maintained school, it should advertise this fact and invite interested parties to bring forward proposals to establish the school by a specified date. Any interested party, including a community or faith group, an LEA or another public, private or voluntary body, will be able to publish proposals. Proposals may be brought forward for a City Academy as part of the competition.

5.25 In order to make sure that all promoters are treated equally, we will expect the LEA to secure a site for the new school and arrange for any necessary planning permission to be sought. The LEA will also secure the Secretary of State's agreement in principle to a case for new provision.

5.26 The proposals will be published alongside one another for local consultation, and the School Organisation Committee will have a full opportunity to assess the proposals, comment on their pros and cons and express a preference. The Secretary of State will then consider all proposals submitted and decide between them. All promoters will be treated fairly on the merits of their case. Criteria for decisions will include the educational merits of the proposals, the value for money that they provide and the outcome of the consultation.

Establishing new partnerships

5.27 We also want to encourage schools to choose to establish new partnerships with other successful schools, the voluntary sector, faith groups or the private sector, where they believe this will contribute to raising standards. Where schools wish to involve external partners, we will make sure that it is straightforward for them to do so, while keeping appropriate safeguards and clear lines of accountability in place. We would anticipate that a range of partnerships would be possible. For example, successful schools might share the benefits of particularly strong subject departments, FE colleges with a vocational specialism might work with schools in that area, faith groups might help to build a school's ethos and the private sector could provide strong management support for schools, which are increasingly complex organisations to manage. We will not stand in the way of any arrangements which will raise standards for pupils.

5.28 Where a school chooses to work with an external partner, staff would remain employed by the LEA or governing body, as now. They will not be required or expected to leave the public sector. However, at present, staffing provisions make it difficult for heads to bring in additional teachers employed for example by other schools or FE colleges, even if that would be a sensible way to provide lessons in a minority subject or in the event of staff shortages, for instance. We will amend legislation to enable heads to bring in additional teachers employed by others and develop innovative approaches to educating their pupils, including distance learning backed by effective use of ICT.

5.29 We are supporting new partnerships in a variety of circumstances, including in areas with a selective admissions system where we are encouraging grammar and non-selective schools to share expertise and learn from each other. We will invite more such partnerships to apply for funding of up to £20,000 for joint projects between two or more schools, perhaps alongside other partners including the LEA. They might involve sharing facilities, direct interchange of pupils for specific subjects, post-16 collaboration and shared professional development of teachers. We are also continuing to discuss the scope for public funding of schools offering alternative curricula.

We will support inclusive faith schools

5.30 Faith schools have a significant history as part of the state education system, and play an important role in its diversity. Over the last four years, we have increased the range of faith schools in the maintained sector, including the first Muslim, Sikh and Greek Orthodox schools. There are also many independent faith schools and we know that some faith groups are interested in extending their contribution to state education. We wish to welcome faith schools, with their distinctive ethos and character, into the maintained sector where there is clear local agreement. Guidance to School Organisation Committees will require them to give proposals from faith groups to establish schools the same consideration as those from others, including LEAs. Decisions to establish faith schools should take account of the interests of all sections of the community.

5.31 We note that Lord Dearing's report to the Archbishops' Council recommends that the Church of England increase significantly the number of secondary school places it supports. Where there is local support, we will welcome that. We want these schools to be inclusive, and welcome the recommendation that Church of England schools should serve the whole community, not confining admission to Anglicans. We want faith schools that come into the maintained sector to add to the inclusiveness and diversity of the school system and to be ready to work with non-denominational schools and those of other faiths.

Achieving diversity

5.32 Only if we can build on the commitment and enthusiasm of all those who work in schools will we succeed in implementing a truly diverse secondary system. This is a strategy for all schools in every area. We want to create the opportunity for every school to develop its distinctive ethos and excellence. But we will not force schools to take on a role that they do not wish to have. Nor will we add requirements that schools do not feel they have the capacity to manage. We know that diversity is not something that can or should be imposed. END OF EXTRACT FROM WHITE PAPER

EXTRACT FROM The Way Ahead: CofE schools in the New Millennium Church House Publishing 2001:

Chapter 4 - Distinctiveness and partnership

Sub-heading - Partnership with local education authorities:

4.23 One Chief Education Officer from an LEA where there has recently been an increase in provision has commented that its aim, and the aim of the diocese, was 'to increase diversity of provision, not to introduce selection by the back door', an issue raised by two of the three teachers' unions who responded to our consultation. In proposing additional Church schools or places in them, that is our aim also. We believe that an expansion of Church schools will contribute to increasing choice and diversity within the overall provision of education, as well as seeking greater parity of provision between Church primary and secondary schools. In particular, the Church has a particular role to play in contributing to the lives and education of children in disadvantaged areas. Discussions on the possibility of increasing provision should therefore be characterized by a spirit of openness and genuine debate on what Church schools can offer to the local community.

Times Educational Supplement 28 February 2003:

Faith school opponents voice 'conspiracy' fears

THE Church of England and the Government have been accused of conspiring to stifle opposition to new faith schools.

Opponents of faith schools say proposed changes to the law will make it harder for them to object to plans to build new religious schools or extend existing ones.

The rules under consultation would halve to one month the time allowed for objections to school reorganisation, including the creation of new faith schools.

In addition, opponents complain that Church leaders have made it more difficult for them to find information by refusing to tell them where new faith schools are planned.

Canon John Hall, director of education at the Church of England, has advised all dioceses not to comply with a request by the British Humanist Association to inform it when new church schools are planned.

Marilyn Mason, the association's education officer, said: "Consultation where you consult only your own supporters is worthless. Everything, including the Department for Education and Skills and the Church of England, seems to be conspiring against genuine local consultations on new faith-used schools.

"The likely outcome is that people will Wake up one morning to find that there is going to be a new religious school in their area and that will be the first they had heard of it."

Canon Hall said: "'There is no reason for us to ask our dioceses to perform an extra administrative task for the opponents of faith schools."

The consultation on changes to the rules on school reorganisation ends in April. The new rules will come into force in July.

A DfES spokesman said that changes were intended to speedup the derision-making process.

"All interested parties should be in a position to make their comments within this time scale, because before proposals may be published, all interested parties must be consulted, so they will already be aware of what is intended," he added.