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The Church must educate poor kids

02 November 2006


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 expansion ( 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.

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