When emotions ran high

by
05 June 2015

Martin Hislop had an unwelcome gift when he proposed changing school admissions rules

TUESDAY 28 April seemed much the same as any other day. Until, that is, I picked up an envelope lying on the doormat. It contained dog excrement, wrapped in a cutting from the previous day's Daily Telegraph, which carried a news story about a change to the admissions policy at our local school, St Luke's C of E Foundation Primary in Kingston upon Thames (News, 1 May).

I had never expected to receive such a package as a result of a move I initiated in November 2014, when a regular meeting of the St Luke's governing body had on the agenda an item asking the governors to consider the admissions policy for September 2016.

As the Vicar of St Luke's, I have been an ex-officio foundation governor of the school for 15 years, and have previously chaired the school-admission committee. I am also a member of the borough's school admissions forum.

I have always been a staunch defender of church schools within the state sector. In 2006, I clashed with the then Liberal Democrat Member for Richmond Park, Jenny Tonge (now Baroness Tonge), over her criticism of faith schools. I am aware of a sustained campaign in some humanist and secularist quarters to undermine and eliminate faith schools.

 

OVER the past five or so years, however, I have become concerned about the impact of the school's admission policy, where priority is given to a proportion of children on the basis of the church attendance of their parents. After much thought and prayer, I suggested to the governors that we should open the admission policy to consultation, and consider a proposal to remove any church-attendance criteria.

Nothing prepared me for what was to come.

The consultation was set to run from December through to late March, in accordance with the statutory provisions. The school notified parents, the local authority, the diocese, local schools, and the wider community of the consultation, and I wrote a letter to current school parents and to parishioners.

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A storm of agitation and aggressive comment was unleashed through social media. Within days, the school received letters that read like solicitors' warnings of litigation ahead. Comments in the playground and on Facebook and Twitter warned of the school's ceasing to be Christian.

Over the next weeks and months, the climate of hostility and misrepresentation increased. A public meeting was convened by the governors, and individuals were encouraged to provide written comments to the governors.

As it turned out, however, despite all the angst and complaints from a small but vociferous small group, only one parent bothered to approach me to ask me why I contemplated such a change.

 

WHEN the submissions to the consultation were collated, it was found that, of a school of 240 pupils, only 38 parents chose to make a representation: 21 against a change, and seven in favour. 

The governors met in April to make a decision. In light of the anxiety raised, and comments made at the public meeting that this decision was too much too quickly, I asked permission to withdraw the motion to allow a further consultation, with a view to deferring any change in admissions to 2017. 

The governors declined to accept that withdrawal, and proceeded to vote 11-0 in favour of dropping the church-attendance criteria.

The professional staff and the governors remain committed to the Christian ethos of the school, and this change will not adversely affect that ethos.

The level of angst - and outright unchristian - comment that attended this consultation and decision has left a mark on me, and, more importantly, on my outstanding head teacher and her staff.

Nevertheless, I believe that we have acted for the good of St Luke's School, for the local community it seeks to serve, and, most importantly, for the gospel values and mission imperative of our Lord.

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