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Which vision do schools follow?

28 September 2018

The purpose and admissions criteria of church schools are subjects of continuous debate. Tim Wyatt looks at the arguments

Who should the gates of church schools be open to?

Who should the gates of church schools be open to?

“THE National Religion should be made the foundation of National Education, and should be the first and chief thing taught to the poor, according to the excellent Liturgy and Catechism provided by our Church.”

So say the founding documents of the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church in England and Wales, which was created 207 years ago next month, by a wealthy London businessman and philanthropist, Joshua Watson.

Watson and the like-minded churchmen who helped him launch the Church of England into the education business, more than 200 years ago had a clear vision: every parish should have a school that would teach every local child.

This legacy and history, handed down to the 4700 church schools that can trace their heritage back to Watson’s National Society, is still widely celebrated. Last year, the Archbishop of Canterbury began a debate on schools in the House of Lords by describing Watson as the “best layman in England”.

But, in an age when church schools are funded almost exclusively by the taxpayer, and barely more than one per cent of the population attend an Anglican service each Sunday, what are C of E schools for? Are they primarily there to provide a good education for anyone who wants to join the school community? Or do they exist to promote, instil, and preserve Anglicanism?

At the epicentre of this often heated debate is the question of admissions. Behind the stories of sharp-elbowed atheist parents going through the motions of church attendance for years, to push their child up the waiting list at the parish primary, lies a question of principle: are church schools for all, or for Anglicans first and foremost?

istockSome church figures believe that school admissions criteria, based on whether a family has been attending church services in the previous 12 or 18 months, should be abolished

IN THAT same House of Lords debate from December (News, 15 December), Archbishop Welby said that, like Watson, today’s C of E educators are “universalist”.

“The Church of England’s educational offer to our nation is church schools that are, in its own words, ‘deeply Christian’, nurturing the whole child — spiritually, emotionally, mentally as well as academically — yet welcoming the whole community,” he explained. “I have always been against selection by faith.”

The C of E’s chief education officer, Nigel Genders, has emphasised that the schools under his aegis are “not faith schools for the faithful . . . [but] church schools for the community”.

Those working in Anglican education largely say the same. The chief executive of the diocese of London’s multi-academy trust, Liz Wolverson, says that the diocese’s schools should “serve their local communities and represent the children and people who live in that area” over preserving places for children from the nearest parish church.

Colin Hopkins, who recently retired as the diocese of Lichfield’s director of education, considers the C of E position to have always been that its schools are for everybody, and notes that there are dozens of church schools whose pupils are nearly 100 per cent Muslim.

The Revd Brendan Clover, the senior provost of the Woodard Corporation, a family of 46 private and state church schools, dating back to 1848, says that, while this view may not have always held sway in the Church, it is definitely the consensus today.

Anne Davey, the chief executive of Oxford diocese’s academies trust, says that it is a vital part of “Christian witness” for church schools to be as open and welcoming as possible. “In most cases, that mission is best served by not having faith criteria.”

IF A school is not oversubscribed, no admissions criteria can be applied, and each child must, by law, be offered a place. Although oversubscription rates vary, a survey from 2016 suggested that about six in ten schools were forced to apply admissions criteria. The most recent statistics from the Department of Education (DfE), however, show that, at primary level, 91 per cent of children receive an offer from their first-choice school, and 82 per cent at secondary level.

Once a school is oversubscribed, it is allowed to begin ranking those who have applied by a variety of criteria. Although all church schools are exempt from the Equality Act’s prohibitions on religious discrimination (which normally apply to state schools), the different types of church school have slightly different rules when it comes to religious admissions policies.

Ignoring private schools, there are five kinds of church school: voluntary controlled, voluntary aided, foundation, sponsored academies, and converter academies.

Both aided and foundation schools, which make up about 30 per cent of all C of E schools, are their own admissions authority (the governing body can create its own admissions criteria, including selecting up to 100 per cent of their places by church attendance when oversubscribed).

In controlled schools (about 40 per cent of the total), the admissions policy is set by the local education authority. This does not stop them using any religious criteria in admissions, but only if the local authority permits it, which three-quarters say they do not.

The remaining church schools are academies: either brand-new free schools sponsored by the local diocese when they were set up, or existing controlled or aided schools which have now converted into academies.

The sponsored academies — also known as free schools — can choose children on the basis of their faith, but only up to a maximum of 50 per cent of places.

Converted academies, whether they were controlled, foundation, or aided previously, become their own admissions authorities; so, in effect, they have the same freedoms in admissions as aided schools.

NEITHER Church House nor individual dioceses can control a church school’s admissions policies. But, as the tide has begun to turn in recent years against faith admissions, some dioceses have started to recommend that schools under their care move away from offering places based on church attendance.

Ms Wolverson says that London diocese now formally advises that schools should not select more than 50 per cent of their pupils by faith — and, ideally, none at all. Ms Davey says that Oxford diocese changed its guidance six years ago, to urge church schools either to remove any faith criteria in their admissions policies, or at least to move it down the list of priorities.

Most dioceses, however, do not advise against using church attendance in the admissions process, research published last year by the Accord Coalition, which campaigns against any such selection in state schools, suggests. Their report found that only five of 40 dioceses surveyed had explicit guidance that opposed faith admissions, and ten actively encouraged it (News, 24 November 2017).

Both Ms Davey and Ms Wolverson emphasise that, ultimately, dioceses can only recommend, and that church schools’ admissions policies are out of diocesan control.

This fact, plus the growing complexity of the English school system, is why nobody really knows how many C of E schools admit pupils on religious grounds. Nor is it known how many children, each year, win places at church schools because of church attendance.

Hints in statements by central church figures suggest that, at some point, a scoping exercise has taken place: in the Lords, Archbishop Welby said that fewer than a quarter of C of E secondaries filled more than half their places each year on the basis of religious affiliation, and Mr Genders has said in the past that 60 per cent of all church schools did not make any selection by faith. But when asked where such figures came from, a spokesman for the C of E was unable to provide any answers.

SEVERAL church figures are calling for the abolition of faith admissions. Professor Linda Woodhead, a sociologist of religion at Lancaster University, says that the Church is caught between two competing visions for education, and needs to choose openness and service rather than an insular and exclusively Anglican approach.

“It needs to decide, in my view, in favour of its traditional stance, which is that they are for the whole of society. What would Jesus do? Would he say education was just for the children of Christians? Of course not. Education is for every child; that’s what the gospel is about — good news to everybody.”

Mr Hopkins says: “The National Society was set up 200 years ago to educate the ‘manufacturing and labouring classes’ of the local community, whoever they were. That’s the tradition, that we serve the whole community in the name of Christ.”

The Revd Stephen Terry, a retired priest who now chairs the Accord Coalition, says: “While it’s encouraging for Archbishop Welby and Nigel to be talking the talk, there doesn’t seem to be much sign of the Church of England walking the walk.”

C of E schools were always intended to be there for the whole community, he says. What is required is government legislation stripping faith schools of their exemption from normal rules that ban discrimination by religion. “It would be a much better and fairer system than we have at the moment, and less open to abuse.”

The idea that attendance criteria produce perverse incentives for parents to go to church is regularly in the news. Earlier this year, an anonymous mother wrote an article in The Times in which she admitted that she had attended the local church for several years, become close friends with the vicar, and even joined a midweek prayer group, simply to get her daughter into an “outstanding” C of E primary school.

MORE than 4800 schools in England are C of E schools. The greater proportion are primary schools, and this represents about 25 per cent of all state primary schools. But there are more than 220 secondary schools, and some critics have accused these schools of entrenching social division by selecting pupils who are disproportionately from wealthier backgrounds, via the proxy of church attendance.

A recent DfE report built on previous research by the Sutton Trust, which found that the best-performing Anglican secondary schools had, on average, 5.7 per cent fewer children qualifying for free school meals than lived in their catchment area (News, 17 March 2017).

The new research concluded that poorer children were less likely to get into a church secondary school than their wealthier neighbours, even if those poorer families still identified as Christians. Furthermore, even though black families were 68 per cent more likely to apply to a church secondary school than white families, they were “significantly” less likely to be admitted.

Researchers emphasised that their findings did not prove that these schools were “cream-skimming” the most affluent pupils on purpose, but suggested that some of the differences could be because poorer and non-white families “underestimate the level of competition for church secondary school places, and consequently do not place as much emphasis on fulfilling religious, or other requirements, before applying”.

The Church of England has always denied that admissions criteria based on faith ensures a cohort of pupils from wealthier families, and argues that, in some parts of the country, admissions criteria based on faith have been a route to improving socio-economic diversity rather than entrenching privilege.

In parts of Oxford diocese, Ms Davey says, the implementation of a strict postcode admissions policy, whereby popular schools would chose pupils who lived closest, would admit children only from wealthy backgrounds, and that implementing religious criteria provides a route into outstanding schools for poorer churchgoing families.

The diocesan director of education for the diocese of Liverpool, the Revd Richard Peers, says that, when he was head teacher at a secondary school in London, the catchment area happened to be a mostly white, middle-class neighbourhood. By ensuring that some places at the school required church attendance, he was able to admit black children from Pentecostal backgrounds, and ensure a better social and ethnic mix among pupils.

Ms Wolverson agrees, saying that when one of her schools first told her that it was going to increase its church-attendance commitment, she was “appalled”. But she then realised that, without doing something to bring in more ethnic minorities and deprived children, the school would become a “ghetto of privilege”.

ANOTHER counterargument from the defenders of church places is the suggestion that, without some guaranteed churchgoers within the school body, a school’s Anglican ethos is under threat.

This suggestion was central to the conclusions of the Dearing report, a 2001 C of E inquiry into church schools. It recommended that church schools aim to be “distinctive” and “inclusive”, but, crucially, said that every school should aim to secure a “substantial minority of pupils with a Christian background”, enough to “ensure that the school is a distinctively Christian institution whilst remaining grounded in the local community in all its diversity”.

Some have gone even further: Dr Peter Shepherd, the former head teacher at Canon Slade School, in Bolton, frequently clashed with diocesan authorities over his refusal to admit any child to his highly oversubscribed C of E secondary school unless the parents could prove many years of Anglican church attendance.

“There is a case for a core of a church school community — children, parents, teachers — to have a faith,” Mr Hopkins says. “If you have entirely open admissions, where do the values come from? They have to be artificially created or imposed from on high. The ethos will vanish very quickly.” Others, however, insist that a distinctively Christian ethos depends on school leadership and governance.

“The Christian character doesn’t require a certain proportion of Christian children in the school,” Mr Peters says. And Ms Wolverson cites the example of Christ Church School, on Brick Lane, in east London, which, despite being hundreds of years old, has never had much more than a handful of Anglicans attending it. First, it catered to French Huguenot refugees, then Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe, and, most recently, the children of Bangladeshi families who have made their home inthe east end of London.

ALMOST everyone working in Anglican education seems to have come to a settled conclusion on the question who church schools are for: everyone.

“My view is that Christian education is the greatest gift the Church of England has given to this nation,” Fr Clover said. “I’m less concerned about questions of critical mass than the imperative to keep offering the gift.”

“Church schools were formed to serve the poor,” Ms Davey reflected. “And who are the poor these days, particularly in a fairly wealthy diocese? The poor here are the spiritually poor, endlessly driven from rugby training to violin practice and 11-plus coaching, and then 14 screens on all at once at home.

“Those children need to learn to sit still, contemplate the beauty of the universe, and think about religion and spirituality. Actually, the children who need a church school most are those who don’t go to church.”

It even seems probable that this conviction also extends to those setting policy at Church House; it is notable how figures such as Mr Genders or Archbishop Welby are quick to point out how rare it is for church schools to select by faith, even as they defend the practice in principle.

But, critically, it seems that most of those on the ground are also convinced that the relatively small amount of localised selection by faith which does go on in the church-school sector does not undermine this vision of serving everyone in the community.

Clearly this pragmatic, compromise position will never satisfy activists such as Mr Terry, or Professor Woodhead. But, as Mr Hopkins wryly noted, it is a particularly Anglican solution to the conundrum.

“Yes, we want to welcome families who actively espouse [our] belief system, but we also want to serve everyone else as well. It’s both and: a typical Anglican model of sitting on the fence. The mixed economy at all times.”

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