Church schools should be beacons of social justice
It looks as if the Church of England is quids in with the Government's new
Education Bill: after all, it promises millions of pounds for new church
schools. Christian sponsors are already lining up to run city academies, and
the new "trust schools" will give even further scope for church-school
News, 28 October).
Great news, we might think. But in our enthusiasm to get our hands on the
cash we should not forget to ask whether the Government's brave new world of
self-governing schools will really produce a better and fairer system. The
Government is promising "better schools for all", but before we join the party,
we should ask whether this promise can be trusted.
The new Education Bill is designed to address one of the most pernicious
inequalities in British society: the fact that children from deprived
backgrounds fare so much worse not only at school, but in life generally. If
you are poor, you are much less likely to achieve; you are more likely to get
sick; and you will probably die younger. Poor kids are less likely to go to
university, but seven times more likely to end up as teenage mums and dads.
Parents who want to know how well their children will do at school should
look at their bank statements. Deprivation is by far the most reliable general
predictor of future educational achievement. Research in Wales for 2004 (
www.wales.gov.uk/keypubstatisticsforwales) shows that schools with high
numbers of pupils receiving free school meals achieve much less than schools
with an affluent intake.
There is a statistical fatalism about deprivation, and the Government should
be applauded for its long-term commitment to tackling child poverty. But it is
not at all clear that giving schools and parents more power will break the link
between poverty and underachievement.
Once schools have passed from local-authority control into the hands of
parents, it is hard to see how deprived children will do better. The worst
people in the world to have direct control of schools are parents, whose first
priority is, rightly, to look after their own. We see parent power at work in
the independent sector, where the majority of schools are selective, and where
children with special needs are often asked to leave in case they spoil the
exam results. In the worst cases, Simon Jenkins suggested in
The Guardian, racist parents will use the new freedoms to restrict
access for black pupils.
Discrimination can be hard to spot, because it operates surreptitiously. The
Sutton Trust reported in September that poor children, by some complex process
of discrimination, are weeded out before they can reach the best secondary
schools. The percentage of deprived pupils in the best state schools is one
fifth of that in the general population.
Just last week, government statistics revealed that the new city academies,
which were designed to benefit the most poor, are in fact screening out
deprived children. In one city academy, the number of poor children has
plummeted by 68 per cent.
This is not to say that Churches should shun the Government's proposals, but
we should be rigorous in ensuring that Church-sponsored schools provide
properly for children from deprived backgrounds. The mission to the poor should
be inscribed in every new school constitution. Visiting bishops should ask
searching questions about child poverty, and school governors should be
champions of the underprivileged.
Church schools must excel as beacons of social justice. In a world where
people often ask whether we really need the Church, this is an area where we
can exercise public moral leadership.
The Revd Dr Rayment-Pickard is Vicar of St Clement with St Mark and St
James, Notting Dale, and Area Dean of Kensington, London.