Page 9, 18th April 2008

18th April 2008
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Page 9, 18th April 2008 — Victims of a proxy war

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People: Ed Balls
Locations: Rome


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Victims of a proxy war

Catholic schools are being caught in the crossfire, says Hugh David


The latest round in the ongoing battle over faith schools has seen the Government "name and shame" 87 religious schools (some 32 of them Catholic) in three areas for breaking the Government's admission code. At first glance, it seems that we have finally got to the substance of New Labour's whispering campaign against church schools evidence that such schools are manipulating their intakes to ensure good results.

Naming and shaming. a favourite trick of this Government over the past 10 years, has usually been reserved for those who, despite repeated warnings, step significantly outside the norms of a civilised society: criminals, antisocial yobs who terrify neighbours, paedophiles. Hardly, you would think, suitable company for hard-working heads and governors of church schools. But that is where they now find themselves.

Their "crime" has been, if at all, to make errors of judgment in applying the code of admissions procedure. I say, if at all, because many of the charges have not yet been tested. The new code is, by the Government's own admission, a complex and nuanced document. And this has been its first year in operation. So, you might reasonably conclude, a few small mistakes were inevitable.

Which is essentially what the vast majority of the 87 accused were probably guilty of. Small mistakes. Technical breaches, made in good faith. Such as giving the wrong emphasis to sibling policy. Or not using the right wording in setting out admissions details for children with special needs. Hardly a hanging offence yet they are being hung out to dry.

To listen to Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families or Carpets and Soft Furnishings, as one teacher friend quipped to me this week you would imagine that the heads of church schools were filling every place in their schools with their relatives' children. Or their own illegitimate offspring.

The measured response to such an attack from those who run Catholic education has disappointed some. They would like to see our leaders squaring up to ministers in this propaganda war. And, I admit, sometimes I share their frustration. But there is a wisdom in refusing to rise to the bait of provocation.

To understand why, we should perhaps ask ourselves some basic questions, such as why this situation has come about in the first place. Until 2001, church schools were a more or less uncontroversial part of the education landscape, save for a few bigots who moaned about "Rome on the rates".

What changed everything was the attack on the Twin Towers. It brought to the fore a widespread concern about the formative years of young Muslims and therefore led to particular attention being paid to their schooling. A quick and easy fix and we are all susceptible to them appeared to be to ban what were labelled as Islamic schools because they were suspected of promoting religious separatism and hence extremism. Educate young Muslims with everyone else and you bind them more closely to the rest of society, it was argued.

But no one, in such troubled times, wants to be seen as attacking Islamic schools and certainly not the handful in Britain that have been accepted into the voluntary-aided sector. So instead of singling out Islamic schools, the term "faith schools" started to be bandied about. Attack the general principle of schools with a distinct religious ethos, seemed to be the theory, and you would be able to. curtail Islamic schools without ever specifically targetting them. And so a culture has grown up where Catholic schools are decried as a proxy for attacking Muslim schools.

Not a happy state of affairs but if this is indeed the thinking, then it makes a measured response from our Catholic leaders all the more important. And by defending the long-standing partnership of church and state in education, they may indeed be pointing a way forward on the disputed question of Muslim schools. There may already be a small number of state-aided Muslim schools, but there are very many more independent ones. Over the state-aided ones a great deal of control can be exerted, via the purse strings, via regular inspection, via a national curriculum. Over the independent ones, that influence is considerably weaker. The sensible policy, therefore, would be to bring as many within the state system as possible as a way of ensuring better integration.

One of the aspects of being a school governor I least enjoy is the constant and insistent invitation from the local education authority to go on training days. The clear assumption is that most governors have nothing better to do than fritter away day after day. The dawn of the two-income family like my own has clearly passed our legislators by. The glossy magazine for governors they send out from the Department of Children, Schools and Families may be full of pictures of young professionals getting involved in running their local schools, but the reality is that only the retired have time to embrace fully the training regime being urged on governors.

Now, of course, governors do need training especially given the weight of obligation this Government has heaped upon them but it has to be carefully targeted help. Instead, what is on offer usually has the feel of something designed by a bureaucrat to tick boxes. So, recently, I spent a whole day with a group of other local governors boning up on recruitment practice. At the end of the session, all participants had to sit a paper. And our pass or fail mark will, we were told, be taken into account when Ofsted visits the school.

The fact that most of us don't appear to have any great role in recruitment that in most well-run schools is down to the head mattered not one iota. Neither did the fact that we all discussed the right answers to the questions on the test paper on the basis of one-fail, all-fail. Another benchmark had been set which Ofsted could judge.

It's hard to put a figure to what the whole training day must have cost the taxpayer. Certainly four figures. Just so we can be seen to be taking recruitment seriously. As if we didn't already. But that four-figure sum might so easily have been spent instead on well, how about something really basic such as books, staff or facilities?

Please keep your letters coming in, marked "Attention Hugh David". to [email protected]

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