The Church of England Board of Education is resisting plans intended to ensure that all sponsors of new schools are accredited for their ability to maintain educational standards.
Legal advisors to the National Society for Promoting Religious Education are arguing that setting limits on “the power of the Church of England to provide schools...must be a very doubtful legal undertaking”, according to a report in the Church Times newspaper.
The Church seems to believe that its dioceses should not be subject to the same checks as other organisations that wish to run schools, despite the fact that new Church schools will be funded by taxpayers.
Explaining the Church of England position, the Director of Education for Lichfield Diocese, Colin Hopkins, said: “On one level, the accreditation system relegates us to the status of another potential provider with no special rights: we simply take our place in the educational marketplace alongside other potential bidders. It could be argued that accreditation is merely a quality-assurance process designed to weed out unsuitable schools promoters."
He continued: "It is unclear how the Church of England and Roman Catholic Church could be considered unsuitable since we have such a substantial stake in the system, and our role in establishing schools predates that of the state.”
However, the inclusive schools coalition Accord, which wants to see common standards for admissions, employment and regulation in all publicly funded schools, regardless of their sponsor, argues that the position of the Church in seeking preferential treatment and an opt-out from inspection is unfair and untenable.
Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, chair of the Accord Coalition said: “If the Church of England is confident about the performance of its local boards of education, then they have nothing to fear from submitting to the same process as would be required of any other sponsor.
"Instead, they appear to be making legal arguments for special treatment. The question of how long the Church has been around is not relevant — these schools will [be] paid for by the taxpayer and sponsors should not use religious links to evade undergoing proper checks,” Dr Romain added.
Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, which is a founding member of Accord, commented: "The notion that it might be illegal or inappropriate to require the Church of England to follow the same rules and procedures as everyone else seeking to sponsor new schools does not hold water. With the receipt of public funds and public trust goes the need and requirement for public accreditation and accountability.
He added: "The argument that it is wrong to set limits on the power of the Church of England - or anyone else, religious or non-religious - to set up schools, is unsustainable. From a Christian perspective, let alone a general public one, it is entirely reasonable to expect Church authorities to wish to set exemplary standards, not to evade proper validation and monitoring procedures."
The National Society was established in 1811. It established a national private and charitable system of education, supplemented by the State from 1870 onwards, and eventually largely replaced by public provision.
The Accord Coalition came into being in 2008, bringing together both religious and non-religious voices concerned to promote inclusive community schooling, and to seek the reform of taxpayer funded faith schools in this direction.
The Accord Coalition: http://www.accordcoalition.org.uk/
The National Society: http://www.natsoc.org.uk/society/about.html