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Why school admissions can never be objective


I have always been a fan of church schools, and suspicious of the crass one-size-fits-all secularism, so popular among educationalists of the Left. None the less, in middle-class parishes like ours, with first-rate church schools, there are always going to be those who are looking for free prep schools. It's a real problem. "Bend the knee and save the fee" - that's what they say round here.

Last week, the Archbishop of Canterbury argued that "this situation means that we need some simple objective criteria, applicable across the country," ( News, Comment, 17 March). I'm afraid I don't agree. What I find is that it's the pushy middle-classes that are best at figuring out the minimum requirement for meeting simple objective criteria, whatever they are. On the other hand, there are committed Christians who don't meet a set of criteria for a variety of reasons. What is needed is something that used to be called "good judgement" , and that's precisely what nationally agreed criteria take away.

Church attendance is often used as a simple, objective-looking test. But the truth is, I couldn't say how many times people in my congregation come to church. We have 600-plus people worshipping in the parish on a Sunday morning, and I'm not good with names. "Do they come at least twice a month?" asks the form. I just don't know. Yes, we monitor who attends Sunday school. But some prefer their children to sit in church alongside them. And I absolutely refuse to have some sort of clocking-in device in the narthex.

The truth is that, apart from baptism, there are no simple objective criteria for being a Christian. The church-attendance test is an irritation because it allows schools to pretend that their criteria are simple and objective, while they pass on to the poor clergy the task of answering the unanswerable. Some schools make it my problem to deliver on their badly devised admissions criteria.

It's a great shame that interviews are now increasingly distrusted. For the least-worst way to determine the nature of a person's faith - or lack of it - is a one-to-one meeting. Unfortunately, the call for "simple objective criteria" is worryingly close to the secular education-speak that is premised on an assumption that the only things in life that are real are the things that can be measured. In a place like Putney, it will be the management-literate that will understand how best to work the system. The danger is that it will fill my church with frauds, and the church school with snobs.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney, and lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford.

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