THERE is a reason why the Archbishop of Canterbury came unstuck
over church-school admissions last week, and it was only partly
because his guard was down during a brief but wide-ranging
interview with a news-hungry journalist. It was the same reason why
the Bishop of Oxford came unstuck in 2011, shortly after he had
been appointed chairman of the Church of England's Board of
Education. School admissions policy is complicated and political. A
church spokesman, assuming he knows his brief, can deal with one of
these factors, i.e. something that is complicated but
uncontroversial, or political but simply expressed; but the
combination of the two is an accident waiting to happen.
The myths are legion: churches dangle school places in front of
young couples in order to boost congregation numbers; church-school
heads engineer the entry in order to select the best-performing
pupils; the system is easily manipulated by pushy middle-class
parents (this criticism usually comes from unsuccessfully pushy
middle-class parents); the Church has a stranglehold over schools
in order to indoctrinate children; and so on. First, half of church
schools are voluntary controlled, and thus adhere to the local
authority's admissions policy. Second, those schools that have a
degree of leeway - voluntary aided and academies - must none the
less follow the Department for Education code. Third, far from
attempting to manufacture a comfortable, monochrome school
population, some church schools use the limited freedom they have
to deviate from a purely geographical set of admissions criteria in
order to combat the effects of being in a middle-class area.
It was entirely understandable when Bishop Pritchard pondered,
in 2011, the possibility of a ten-per-cent faith-based quota; and
when Archbishop Welby last week reported, approvingly, "a steady
move away from faith-based entry tests". But it is also
understandable when church-school heads ask how they are to
maintain their Christian ethos without a ready supply of Christian
teachers or at least a smattering of churchgoing families. The
temptations to favour bright children from involved families
remain, but many school heads point out that managing admissions to
an over-subscribed school is as much a burden as a privilege.
Turning people away is never good for mission.
The new figures comparing church-school performance with
non-C-of-E schools - four per cent more "good" or "outstanding"
ratings from OFSTED - suggest that the Church has got it about
right. A narrower gap might hint that church schools have nothing
extra to offer. A wider discrepancy could signal that church
schools are not as involved with the worst-performing pupils as
they should be. Perhaps these figures, and the indications that
church schools have roughly the same ethnic mix and need for free
school meals as their community-school counterparts, will silence
some of the critics.