Tory school plans promise big religious expansion

The Conservative shadow Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, gave an interview to the Church Times recently, in which he assured the Church that there would be a great many more religious schools under the Tories. He shares the desire to expand religious influence in schools with Michael Gove, the Shadow Secretary of State for Education and, indeed, the Labour Party and the Lib Dems.

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Mr Gibb told the Church Times: “My experience of church schools is that the ethos results in a high standard of behaviour and, in consequence, rising achievement.”

The Tories also favour the Church as its “partner” in the planned expansion of the academy programme and the party has drafted legislation that it will introduce soon after an election victory, permitting independent providers to bid for any school. This would open the way for the Church to completely dominate Britain’s education system.

The Church Times reports: “Under a Conservative regime, local authorities would no longer be able to veto the establishment of academies in their areas; nor would the ‘empty desks’ rule apply, under which new schools can be established only where there is a demonstrable need. Funding would follow the pupil, so any group that could attract enough pupils could open a school.”

The bad news for the Churches and others who want to get their hands on educational establishments at the taxpayers’ expense, is that some of the start-up costs may fall on the provider. So, no more £30-million, Norman Foster-designed academies?

Mr Gibb points to Sweden, where academies have been established in buildings that have been converted for a couple of hundred thousand pounds. So, asks the Church Times, what happens if the provider can’t stump up the cash (as the Church claims it can’t most of the time, and is mostly not pressed to pay its share at present)?

“Well,” says Mr Gibb, “they could rent a building. Some of the best new schools in Sweden are set up in office blocks, for example.”

As for admissions, Mr Gibb said that the present system wouldn’t be changed and would be left to the schools. Michael Gove has already dismissed Ed Balls’ recent claims that covert selection by “faith schools” as being merely “a nod to the Labour party’s anti-church wing”.

Mr Gibb also rejected the idea that it was wrong to have selection of staff based on religion. “It becomes sharper if you think in terms of Orthodox Jewish or Muslim schools. Could an atheist or a member of another faith successfully run such a school? Of course not.”

Mr Gibb also reassures the Church that he will not challenge the mandatory nature of religious education or collective worship. Pupils will still be forced by law to pray, whatever their own beliefs.

Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, said: “This is music to the ears of religious proselytisers who have sewn up our education system to the point that, in some areas, it is becoming difficult to find a community school. But it is extremely bad news for teachers who aspire to be heads and who don’t have, or aren’t happy to feign, a religious faith – their job prospects are shrinking the more the Church reserves the jobs for its own members.”

Mr Sanderson continued: “Mr Gibb’s assertion that an atheist couldn’t run a ‘faith school’ flies in the face of the evidence. Churches are struggling to find heads with the ‘appropriate’ piety to run ‘their’ schools. The law insults those who don’t buy into religion with claims of the superiority of ‘faith schools’. But that superiority comes almost entirely as a result of the selection privileges they enjoy.”