|The Legal Background|
Categories of school - a simplified outline
The mainstream local education authority schools are called community schools in current legislation. They account for about two-thirds of all maintained schools (i.e., "state" schools) and about three-quarters of all school places.
Religious schools within the state system are almost all voluntary schools. Voluntary schools are those founded, owned and to some extent run by a voluntary body - a church, a trust or foundation. Only a few are not faith-based.
Voluntary schools are either voluntary aided or voluntary controlled.
Voluntary controlled schools are entirely paid for by public funds and offer limited rights to the founding body. These are:
1: that the daily act of worship is given according to the faith or denomination concerned.
2: that at parents' request religious education can be given according to the school's religious character (otherwise it is given according to the local agreed syllabus).
3: that when a head teacher is appointed, his/her fitness to the school's religious character can be taken into account.
4: that a small proportion of teaching appointments may be made to give religious education according to the school's religious character.
Most Church of England primary schools are controlled.
Voluntary aided schools have all their running costs met by public funds but have to contribute to building costs. In 1944, when this system was initiated, the contribution was 50%. It has been reduced progressively to only 10%. The rights of the founding body have remained extensive:
1: the daily act of worship is given according to the faith or denomination concerned.
2: religious education is given according to the school's religious character (although parents may opt for their children to be taught according to the local agreed syllabus).
3: staff are employed by the governors, among whom the founding body has a majority of appointees, and so may be (but do not need to be) reserved for teachers of the relevant faith or denomination.
All Roman Catholic voluntary schools are aided.
In addition, there are Academies - a new category of school that is technically independent but is (after an initial contribution from a sponsor of 10-20% of the capital cost) are entirely paid for by the Department for Education and Skills. Nevertheless, they are run by their sponsors and are not required to teach exactly according to the national curriculum. More importantly, they are in some cases sponsored by religous groups - sometimes evangelical and even creationist groups - and they are allowed (for example) to teach in science lessons that the belief that the earth is no more than 6,000 years old is a better theory than that the universe is 12-15 billion years old and that life on earth evolved by natural selection - see more.
Local decision-making about schools
Every local education authority is required by law to appoint a School Organisation Committee (see School Standards and Framework Act 1998, sections 24-27 and schedule 4, para. 5). and decisions about starting, merging or closing schools in the maintained system rest with this committee, subject to reference in defined circumstances to an adjudicator appointed by the Secretary of State - see the DfES's own summary..
Membership of the School Organisation Commmittee is laid down by law in the Education (School Organisation Committees) (England) Regulations 1999 (Statutory Instrument 1999 No. 700). The Committee consists of five required and one optional groups, each of which has one vote on the Committee. One represents the local education authority, another the Church of England, another the Roman Catholic Church. Another represents the Further Education Funding Council, and the fifth represents local schools through selected school governors, with guaranteed representation for four categories of school (community schools, foundation schools, religious voluntary schools other than CofE and RC schools, and non-religious voluntary schools), so long as at least 5% of local children attend schools in the category. A final group may be appointed by the LEA to represent any other single section of the local community determined by the authority.
The two main providers of religious schools therefore have two votes of a total of five (or six) in the local committees that make decisions about the creation of new religious schools, and other religious schools have a role in determining a further vote through the schools group.
Consultation about new proposals is limited: often proposals are virtually agreed before any formal proposal is made and the Government has proposed that the period for "comment or objection" be reduced to one month. Moreover, attempts by the British Humanist Association to find out about local proposals have been met by an outright refusal by the Church of England to consult the Association - see their letter to the Local Government Association.
Updated 22 May 2003