CHURCH of England schools were wounded by the “outrageously false impression” — as one diocesan director of education described it — given by Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, when he alleged that faith schools were weeding out applications from poor or difficult children, and were refusing to give places to children in local-authority care.
The diocesan director of education for Southwell & Nottingham, the Revd Dr Howard Worsley, believes that the use of language is one factor in public misperceptions of church schools.
The Dearing report of 2001, The Way Ahead, made it clear that Church of England schools were both inclusive and distinctively Christian: a statement, Dr Worsley suggests, on which the whole debate is balanced. “Some people can only hear ‘inclusion’, and others only hear ‘distinctiveness’ — which they think means cherry-picking,” he says.
The public seems unable to differentiate between two very different models of church school, he suggests. Roman Catholic schools exist principally for nurturing Catholic children in the faith. The commitment of C of E schools, however, is first and foremost to their communities.
Nottingham Emmanuel School illustrates the breadth of the C of E’s provision. The school was started from scratch six years ago in the disadvantaged Meadows area of the city, where the existing comprehensive had failed — twice. The Church of England was invited to take it on, Dr Worsley says, “because there is a healthy sense that we have strong values, and that we will draw a wide cross-section.”
Out of a yearly intake of 180 pupils, 60 places are allocated to children from the Meadows. The 120 foundation places go to a mixture of children from the feeder C of E schools, children from Christian homes, and children from other faiths.
“It was a massive risk,” Dr Worsley acknowledges. “This is not a triumphalist story of public school education by default, and many a heartache has taken us to where we are now: just under 1000 pupils, OFSTED successfully passed, and commended for distinctiveness.”
“We’re mixing different segments of the community under a Christian umbrella,” Dr Worsley says, “and this is genuinely comprehensive in the way the comprehensive school couldn’t be.”
EVEN bolder in vision is the new Samworth Church Academy opening in Mansfield in September. The Academy will replace the twice-failed Sherwood Hall School. It has an open admissions policy, and takes from a very disadvantaged catchment area. Although it will have a distinctively Christian ethos, it has no church admission criteria.
In the destabilised economy of Mansfield, Academy policies will aim to combat unemployment, and Dr Worsley describes it as “an example of the Church’s engagement in an area where it’s required to be”.
IN NEWCASTLE, which has 49 church schools, Margaret Nicholson describes the diocese’s policy for admissions as “very ordinary”.
First, there is an obligation to take children in local-authority care; and, second, schools are recommended to consider brothers and sisters. “We believe that if you love your neighbour, you ought to be ensuring parents are not struggling to take their children to two or three different schools.”
Schools’ admission policies are also obliged to consider historic catchment areas; travel distances; and providing for both church and non-church families. Some schools have a trust deed to “serve the poor of the parish”, which is honoured by giving high priority to non-church families.
In rural Northumberland, where transport is organised under catchment areas, schools are encouraged to take from the catchment, but Ms Nicholson emphasised: “Northumberland is very generous, and does provide transport for families who ask for denominational education, even if that’s not their local catchment school.
“That does happen, and schools put in children whose parents attend their local church, or one within Churches Together. These are pretty bog-standard things. We don’t recommend a sort of quota system. Our tie-breaker is usually distance as the crow flies. It’s all very ordinary, and we don’t recognise the sort of things newspapers tell us are happening elsewhere.”
BIRMINGHAM diocese has many oversubscribed church schools, in both urban and suburban areas.
Seventy per cent of pupils at St Alban’s C of E Specialist Engineering College, the city’s only voluntary aided secondary school, do not have English as their first language: 27 languages are spoken, and there is a very high proportion of children eligible for free school meals.
At St Saviour’s Primary School in Alum Rock, another disadvantaged area two miles from the city centre, pupils come entirely from ethnic minorities, and almost entirely from other faiths. OFSTED deemed it outstanding in every respect in its April inspection.
Many of the diocese’s primary schools take the majority of their children from the surrounding area. Mary Edwards, the diocesan director of education, points out that church attendance is among the criteria of some of the church schools in the suburbs, but says that “churchgoing isn’t a way of cherry-picking. The fact that parents are churchgoers doesn’t make the children clever, and it doesn’t make them nice and well-behaved.”
She believes that local-authority primary schools in pleasant suburbs which admit on the basis of siblings, and distance from the school, are the ones that are cherry-picking: pupils can go there only if their parents can afford a house in the area.
“That is a different form of selection: selection by mortgage. Parents buy houses believing them to be near a popular school. Estate agents advertise this, and have been doing so for generations.”
Church schools would be cherry-picking only if they were taking children on a different basis from that published in the admissions criteria, she says. “Ours are very clear.”
IN BRADFORD and Ripon & Leeds, the majority of the two dioceses’ 160 schools admit according to community. Half have no criteria other than proximity to the school.
The Revd Clive Sedgewick, the director of education for the two dioceses, points to schools such as Abbey Grange C of E High School in Leeds for evidence of the broad community served.
Church attendance is one of the criteria at Abbey Grange — a larger-than-average mixed comprehensive of 1246. In spite of this it has, Mr Sedgewick says, “a fair number of challenging pupils”.
The great majority of primary schools have no religious criteria at all. “The one or two that do have Christian or church-attendance criteria do not fill on those criteria: they are percentages of the total,” Mr Sedgewick says.
St Andrew’s C of E Primary School, Keighley, serves a largely Muslim population. Almost all the pupils speak English as an additional language, and the proportion with learning disabilities and/or disabilities is above the average, as is the percentage of those eligible for free school meals.
Mr Sedgewick sees it as “a school where we have children mixing very happily, and where children and adults of all faiths believe this is a good school to go to because of the results they achieve for the community, and for the fact that faith is respected.
“They believe that the ethos generated within the school is such that everybody gains, and the quality of education is enhanced. Our church schools are serving challenging backgrounds and challenging areas, and they’re getting stunning results.”