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Church schools for church children?

05 May 2011


From Prebendary Desmond Tillyer

Sir, — The recent remarks by the chairman of the Church of England’s Board of Education, the Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd John Pritchard, concerning church schools (News, 28 April), need to be set into context.

When I became an incumbent in 1974, I inherited a bankrupt failing parish with an excellent, highly regarded church school. From the moment of arrival, it was made clear to me by the diocesan board of education that the central body for education wished the same policy set out by the Bishop of Oxford this year to be implemented then. Not to do so was to incur the displeasure of the diocesan board.

Furthermore, it was clear that the policy was not a new one, even in 1974. It almost certainly originated in the time when a Labour government set out to abolish grammar and technical schools in favour of comprehensives. We, as a nation, have moved on since then, and seen the weaknesses of that policy. It is about time that the church authorities did the same.

The overwhelming majority of church schools have a trust deed that sets out the reason for the school’s existence, namely, to teach children the Christian faith as expressed in the official formularies of the Church of England. Usually such deeds dated before 1870 refer to the education of poor children, because until the 1870 Education Act, poorer families could not afford to educate their children.

Many trust deeds after 1870 continue to refer to poor children in imitation of previous deeds, but in fact the state had taken that stigma away by then. Thus, the raison d’être of church schools is as educational institutions founded to teach the Christian faith, and as such they are an arm of the mission of the Church. This is exactly how I, the governors, and the three excellent head teachers with whom I worked regarded the school. As a result, the parish blos­somed. The school main­tained its educational standards, and focusing on baptised children as our prior­­ity made the school less middle-class, not more. The children and parents and church all benefited from an enhanced socio-economic mix.

Parents who came nominally became practising members, children grew up in the faith and stayed, and the congregation became a positive, inclusive community of faith. If this is not mission, I don’t know what is.

The chairman of the Board of Education needs to rethink his attitude and look at good practice on the ground.

The Croft House, The Croft
Old Costessey, Norwich NR8 5DT

From the Revd A. MacRow-Wood

The Croft House, The Croft
Old Costessey, Norwich NR8 5DT

From the Revd A. MacRow-Wood

Sir, — When I woke up on Good Friday morning to hear that the first news item on the Today programme was the suggestion by the Bishop of Oxford that church schools should reserve only ten per cent of places for church families, I thought time must have slipped and this was 1 April.

How could an institution that recently gathered 30-plus bishops among others at a Regeneration Youth Summit (News, 11 March) to declare that young people were to be a priority in the Church then propose to throw away one of its principal tools for achieving this objective?

I write as a governor of a church secondary school, and as a parish priest. As a governor, I know that under legislation passed by the last government there is now very limited scope for making people “jump through hoops” to qualify for entry into a church school. We were strongly advised that the most we could ask would be that the child be baptised and demonstrate very limited evidence of commitment — no stronger than attendance in church by the child at least monthly in the 12 months before application.

In practice, this puts entry to the school within the means of most families who want it, even those only remotely interested in church. “Extra points for bell-ringing” is an urban myth.

As a parish priest, I value the church school for being one of the main reasons why families with young people venture through our doors. We know why they appear with children at that age, but we make them welcome, and do our utmost to engage with them for the year they are with us. We have a 20-to-30-per-cent success rate; so we see it as a primary mission opportunity.

As a governor, I also know that what helps the school succeed is a current of positive reinforcement flowing between staff, parents, and students. Many of the staff are com­mit­ted Christians with a vocation to teach in the school. Their faith and sense of vocation are nurtured by teaching students from families with similar values, and vice versa. In reality, fewer than a third of our students belong to families who continue to go to church regularly, but there are sufficient shared values for the positive current to flow.

Reduce the number of church families to ten per cent (chosen on the criteria above), and that positive current would weaken or become non-existent. Staff would wonder “Why teach in a church school rather than a state school?” and very rapidly there would be little to distinguish the two types of school, other than the title.

Please can the Board of Education refrain from throwing out the baby with the bathwater?

99 Darbys Lane, Oakdale
Poole, BH15 3EU

From the Revd David Ackerman

Sir, — The Bishop of Oxford has contributed to the debate about church schools, and many have conflated his words about the Church of England’s broader mission in society with the issue of fair access to some of its best schools. But it can be demonstrated that reserving a significant number of places in an oversubscribed school to churchgoing families is indeed the fairest system.

If admission to a school is based mainly on residence — those who live closest — there is nothing stop­ping the wealthiest from buying houses near the school. Basing ad­missions on church attendance and commitment is by far the fairest system. Churches do not have admis­sions policies: anyone can attend.

Changes in admissions policy based on “fairness” very often have unintended consequences, and it is very often the weakest who suffer. I know of a successful church school that is no longer allowed to interview parents: everything is now based on application forms. The most articulate can fill in forms well, not least with the best grasp of English.

This year’s intake of pupils, the first under the new admissions policy, is the most middle-class and white that staff can remember. It is an unintended and profoundly sad consequence of the decisions of those who mean well.

The Vicarage, Windrush
Gloucestershire OX18 4TS

From the Revd Eric R. Royden

Sir, — Words cannot adequately express the disgust, anger, and shame that must be felt by the many men and women striving so hard in the parishes to build their churches, at the words of the Bishop of Oxford. He effectively told families that they should not attend church, as their children will be discriminated against in case they are “nice”. This is at a time when the Church is losing members, and at the same time trying to attract younger people.

Having this bishop in charge of church schools is analogous to having an arsonist in charge of a timber yard. If he has any honour, he will resign his appointment after all the adverse publicity he has created.

84 Asgard Drive
Bedford MK41 0UT

From Canon Stephen Mitchell

Sir, — It is good to see the Bishop of Oxford encouraging Church of England schools to offer more places to non-Christians. If church schools are going to be genuinely inclusive and part of the community, however, then, as the Sea of Faith Commission on faith schools concluded in Faith in the Classroom, no school in the state sector should be its own admis­sions authority. Church schools in the state sector should not select pupils.

Since state funding is not available to all schools, education in the state sector should be offered to all who wish to apply for it. The right to select pupils should be given to those who are independent of the state sector. To make an exception in the state sector for the selection of pupils on faith grounds, as opposed to academic or some other grounds, is arbitrary and unjustified.

All Saints’ Vicarage
Suffolk CB8 8RB

From the Revd Anthony Buckley

Sir, — The Bishop of Oxford is to be congratulated on his words about school admissions last week. The precise percentages involved are less important than the generosity of spirit he displayed.

As a school chaplain, I am daily reminded of the reputation that the Church of England has among the unchurched; every public word that expresses in some way the welcoming, outward-looking, grace of God is enormously helpful in softening soil and sowing seeds.

Alleyn’s School
Townley Road
London SE22 8SU

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