THE problem of finding school places which is faced by families who live in tied housing — as many of the clergy do — and move to a new area was raised in a private member’s motion from the Revd Tiffer Robinson (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich). He sought to ask the Secretary of State for Education to change the Schools Admissions Code to require admissions authorities to allocate places to such people before their move. It also called on admissions authorities to accept letters of appointment as proof of residence.
Introducing the debate, he explained that the authorities already accepted tenancy agreements and proof of exchange of documents in this way.
“A number of clergy and lay people . . . have told me that it’s a huge problem, and they want Synod to address it,” he said.
People in tied accommodation who had to move from one job or role to another faced problems not faced by others, including the need to move house at the same time, he said. “There isn’t the flexibility that is open to many to, within reason, commute further for a period. The property usually has to be vacated soon after the role ends.”
Another problem was documentation. Some schools’ authorities, he said, would accept a bishop’s letter of appointment as enough to place a child on a school’s waiting list. “But in many parts of the country, particularly where admissions fraud is a much bigger problem, clergy are told not to even bother applying until after they have moved and have bills in their name at the new address.
“This makes an already difficult situation ten times worse, and puts already disadvantaged families and children at a further disadvantage. As the academies programme ramps up, and more and more schools are becoming their own admissions authorities, the postcode lottery is only going to become more and more of a problem.”
The problem was faced not only by clergy, but by other workers, including people working in agriculture and farming, and ministers of other religions. While most clergy did not have to move often, “for those beginning stipendiary ordained ministry, it’s common to have to move children three times in five years.” Methodist ministers often had to move posts every five years.
“One of the things people have said to me time and time again when they hear about this motion is ‘Well, that is just common sense. Why is that not the case already?’” he said. “I agree. It’s modest, it’s sensible, and it levels the playing field just a bit for clergy children, and others in a similar situation.”
The Archdeacon of Dorking, the Ven. Paul Bryer (Guildford), told the story of one vicar who could not get her children into the church school on the same road as her vicarage, and had to spend three hours a day taking her two children to and from a school many miles away. “The pressure was too much to bear,” he said.
When he, as her archdeacon, tried to find a solution, he constantly hit against brick walls. “Clergy families facing similar circumstances should not have to experience the trauma this family went through.”
Judith Rigby (Canterbury), as a clerk to independent appeals panels in Kent, knew in detail the difficulties related to schools admissions. But giving a place to clergy families would mean other children lost their place. “Any form of jumping the queue would be seen as preferential treatment, and could potentially affect a welcome into a village, and could be detrimental to building good community links.” Appeals panels were already allowed to consider a child’s circumstances.
Kathryn Winrow (Oxford) supported the motion. Even if appeals panels could address this problem, having admissions overturned on appeal caused huge problems for schools, forcing them into last-minute shake-ups of staffing and the curriculum, she said. The issue was one of clergy well-being, and especially one of the welfare of the child.
“Many children of clergy have already sacrificed much, due to their parent’s calling. Many will have left friends behind. Many will feel resentful.” Getting children into the nearest and easiest school is central to their flourishing, which was essential for clergy flourishing.
The Dean of St Edmundsbury, the Very Revd Dr Frances Ward (Southern Deans), spoke against the motion, although it was “understandable”. Admissions criteria were already confusing and complex, and it would be an error to make them even more complicated, she said. Furthermore, if the clergy were seen to be getting preferential treatment and jumping the queue, it would attract adverse attention in the local area, and for the wider Church. The public would also not be receptive to the idea that clergy families endured the same stresses and trauma as military families, she argued. She asked the chair to divide the motion so that the Synod could vote for the second part and support the spirit of the motion without risking any adverse attention.
The Revd Catherine Pickford (Newcastle) said that she had lived in tied accommodation all her life as a clergy child and now a priest. She had enjoyed it generally, but had not enjoyed the “hopeless inevitability” of moving house, which she still dreaded inflicting on her children.
She and her children had moved recently, and the children had been accepted into a school, which they had visited beforehand. “They were visibly relaxed when they realised that they were going to a familiar place,” she said.
It was not a big advantage, but the difference between knowing and not knowing where they were going to school matters, as did a less stressful process for those in tied accommodation, including farm workers and vergers. Some of those living in tied housing were among the poorest.
Robin Lunn (Worcester) was in favour of the motion, but was concerned for the schools in question if the child or children could join a class that already had 30 children. He was a governor of a school that was “three times” oversubscribed — a particular concern if the classrooms were old and it was a struggle to cater for those numbers.
The Archdeacon of London, the Ven. Luke Miller (London), did not feel that the motion could be supported in its full form. The second part was much more helpful. It was not just people in tied accommodation, but people in social housing, who might have been on a housing list for a long time, who should be considered.
If the Church could find a way to simplify the school admission process, that would be helpful. “Jumping the queue” could be an issue pastorally, but he also spoke of vocation, and the will of God as to where the clergy should and should not be, which, he said, should be lived through. He suggested that the motion be divided to allow simplification of the admissions process.
Rhian Ainscough (Leicester) said that, as a vicar’s daughter, she was lucky to have moved only once, when she was six, in 2003. Her parents had got her into a good school with relative ease, as not many children were born in her year; but a friend and fellow daughter of the cloth had moved five times, and had risked starting school after September. Clergy children should know where they were going, especially during exams, she said. This was relevant to clergy well-being.
The Revd Wyn Beynon (Worcester) did not think that it was about church schools. He had chaired the House of Clergy, and had one cleric who said that he could not get his daughter into any school. “This is not about jumping queues. God did not make children miserable just by clerics’ having to accept what God wanted them to do.”
The Revd Peter Kay (St Albans) challenged the idea that the motion sought to prioritise clergy children, but drew attention to the missionary aspect. The school gate was a key to evangelism, he said. “Think how disheartening it must be for clergy to get up every morning, and drive past their local school 250 times a year, thinking, ‘If only my kids were there!’”
Fenella Cannings-Jurd (Salisbury) spoke of having moved multiple times, changing schools ten times, but, living in a private home, had always got a school place. This was about not penalising children. “Let us stop talking about this motion as if it were about clergy or church schools. It is not.”
Canon Gary Jenkins (Southwark) hoped that, even if the Secretary of State did not take notice, the diocesan secretary would. The Church should not underestimate the “sacrifice” of clergy families, where the warm welcome of a Church school could make all the difference.
The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, also sought permission to divide the motion, because the first part was hard to sustain, since military families moved far more regularly than other professions in tied accommodation, and society would not agree or necessarily understand the motion.
He supported the second part of the motion. The first part would only bring up more complications, and he would not want to disadvantage families who had been in the area much longer.
Mr Robinson resisted the splitting of the motion, which was carried. It read:
That this Synod:
(a) call upon the Secretary of State to include provision in the Schools Admission Code requiring admission authorities to allocate places to children of clergy and other workers who are required to live in tied accommodation, and are moving into the authority’s area, in advance of the family arriving in the area; and
(b) call on all admissions authorities to accept letters of appointment as proof of residence ahead of the children of clergy and other workers who are required to live in tied accommodation moving to the area.