Thursday, April 03, 2008

Faith schools: a law unto themselves?

Here's a link to an article in the Independent, concerning breaches of the code relating to admission of pupils.

Now firstly, let me say that there is no justification for breaking the code on admissions. Looked-after children should have highest priority; there should be no subtle exclusions on the basis of wealth ("Do you have a place for independent study in your house?" is not a permissible question); there should be no unreasonable refusal to accept special needs children (although I believe ALL schools still can refuse to accept a child if accepting him or her would mean that they were required to make large scale changes to the premises); there should be no hint that parents have to make a donation to be offered a place.

However, this report - or at least, the Independent version of it - to me looks like a witch hunt or mischief-making. Firstly, for most VA schools, the amount of money sought in voluntary donations isn't large, and it is needed for the running of the school. One thing missing from the article is what VA schools are doing with these donations. The answer is that VA schools have to find 10% of the cost of capital works - unlike LEA schools. This money has to be found basically from voluntary donations. In addition, much of the cost of maintaining the school also has to be found by the governors - unlike LEA schools. Again, this money has to be found from voluntary donations. That is how they work. The advantage for parents and children is they get a foundation school. The advantage for the state is that they don't have to pay as much for the school's upkeep. But the upkeep still has to be paid, and effectively by the parents. If the roof falls in at an LEA school, the LEA has to find the money to keep the children in school. Not so at a VA school - it's down to the governors and the foundation body. So for all of the insistence that the donation is voluntary (and we do insist this, in our school), the fact is that if the money doesn't come in, the school can't operate.

I am a governor of a VA school, and we continue to struggle with this issue. The contribution from the parents to the governors' fund is voluntary. However, the governors have to pay the diocese per child for maintenance costs, and if capital works are to be carried out, they have to find 10% of the cost of those works. In the past, the parish church has made up a shortfall - it has been able to carry the financial burden for the most needy children. But parish churches are themselves short of money. We have to think very hard about how we comply with the law concerning the voluntary nature of this donation - but the fact is that if people don't make those donations, the school can't survive. And whilst the school may have been great in terms of facilities in the past, it is now considered barely fit for purpose. The playground and classrooms are too small, and since we have combined an infant and junior school on the same site, we really ought to have one central staff room and admin section, whereas we have two in separate buildings. This is going to require major capital works at some stage - of which we have to find 10% - and the only way we can find it is from those voluntary donations.

In addition to which, don't tell me that the state sector isn't immune from manipulation - and by all sorts of agencies. We managed to get our oldest daughter into our preferred school. Had we applied the following year, we would not have managed to get her into any of the three nearest schools. (We go to the wrong sort of church for her to get into the local VA secondary school!) The LEA offered parents in our road places in a school with a bad reputation 11 miles away. No, we don't live in the middle of the countryside - the three nearest schools are 3, 4 and 5 miles away respectively. The same thing happened this year, in a neighbouring village. The reason? The LEA knows that if it gets concerned parents involved in a school, they will make sure their own children do well, and will hold the staff to account for its failures - resulting in improvements in the apparent standard of the school.

Now, is this parental choice? Is this a fair admissions policy at work? Of course not. It's political manipulation on the part of the LEA. And yet I haven't seen a front page article in the Independent about this.

And then you've got the fact that good schools push up house prices in the vicinity. Which means that only rich parents can live nearby. Which means that the school only ends up having to accept privileged children, because the poor parents don't end up living in the catchment area. Whilst a fair admissions policy may apparently be at work here, the fact is that people have already been excluded, by virtue of economics.

And - back to VA schools - there are the people who manipulate the system. There are the people who rent a house close to their "target" school for six months, or say that they are living at their parents address. There are the people who are "dedicated" enough to go to church every month (!) for two years, or who can talk the vicar into writing a nice letter for them. I think it's fascinating that, although I am a lay preacher, and we get to church 1.5 times a week as a family, and so on, I can't get a foundation place at various local VA schools, when people who are blatantly manipulating the system can.

There may be injustices perpetrated by VA schools, and these need to be rectified. But the fact is that the entire admissions system is a mess, and it is being manipulated by all sorts of individuals and organisations. The Independent is kidding itself if it thinks that VA schools are more guilty than anybody else.