Sunday, 17 May 2009

in defence of church schools (1)

I’ve followed the debate about the place of Church Schools in the education system for many years and I am continually disappointed by the way in which church schools are misrepresented both by sections of the national press and by some Christians and Christian organisations pushing an agenda of secularisation. In recent weeks the discussion has become more heated and one of the aspects of the debate which I find concerning is the apparent ignorance of, or deliberate distortions about, church schools by some of those commenting on the issue.

I need to be clear about my own experience of church schools and the state education system. As a child I attended a mixture of church and state schools and during my ministry I have been involved in a variety of ways including:

  • 1990 – 1994 I was Chair of Governors of a Church of England Voluntary Controlled Junior School.
  • 19946 – 2001 Governor and Vice-Chair of Governors of a local authority Primary School in London Borough of Barking and Dagenham. During this period I also chaired school appeals panels on behalf of the education authority.
  • 2001-present day. Governor and Vice-Chair of Governors of a Voluntary Aided Church of England Primary School.

Now what is the substance of some of the complaints about church schools? An organisation that has spearheaded opposition to church schools is the think tank Ekklesia. One of the directors of Ekklesia, Jonathan Bartley recently wrote an article in The Guardian entitled The church must not discriminate. The article was in response to a new website Christianvalues4schools set up by the Church of England to communicate the Christian ethos of Church Schools. One of the values espoused on the website is Justice and in response Bartley asks the following question:
‘So how exactly does the church square "never showing partiality", "dealing with everyone fairly" and "not insisting on their own rights at the expense of others" with discriminatory admissions and employment policies that prioritise church children over non-church attenders and refuse to allow non-Christians to apply for jobs? It tries to claim itself as a "special case", but to most people this will be seen as special pleading. In reality, discriminatory practises undermine and contradict the very Christian ethos they are supposed to protect.’

The simple response to this accusation of discrimination is that all schools have a discriminatory policy. Every school has an admissions policy with a set of criteria by which children are admitted and that means that some children are discriminated against, unless every school has an infinite capacity to admit children. The admissions policy may be set by the education authority or in the case of voluntary aided church schools by the governing body. In some schools priority is given to those living nearest to the school; in some priority is given to those with siblings at the school; in some priority is given to children in care or those with special needs; in the case of some church schools church attendance may be one of the criteria.

What Bartley and Ekklesia are complaining about is not that schools' admissions policies are discriminatory, they all are, they just don’t like the particular criteria applied by some church schools. Why is it more discriminatory to prioritise those who share the ethos of an institution, but not discriminatory to prioritise those who live nearest to that institution?

The church school where I presently serve as vice chair of governors has the following admissions criteria:

  1. All children looked after.
  2. Children living in the parishes of …….
  3. Children with sibling at the school not in year 6.
  4. Children with a parent who joins in the worship of one of the parish churches.
  5. Children with parents active in another Christian church where the school is the nearest church school.
  6. In the event of over subscription in any of these criteria, priority will be determined by straight line distance from home to school.

As can be seen from the criteria above, church children are not prioritised over those living within the school’s catchment area and this is true of many church schools, though you wouldn’t know it from the way this issue is discussed in the national media. However, if church attendance was further up the list of criteria what would be wrong with that? The only complaint could be that, while happy to discriminate on grounds of geography, personal circumstances or relationships, religious affiliation is not considered legitimate. Now how is that not discrimination?

I would suggest that applying geographical criteria in a schools admissions policy is in some cases much more discriminatory than church affiliation. Popular schools often create distorted housing markets within catchment areas, with the wealthy being able to access the school because they can afford the housing prices nearest the school. It could be argued that a church school placing church affiliation as a high selection criterion opens the school to those on lower economic means living further from the school. In such cases the church school is less discriminatory in terms of wealth and class than some state schools.

The question is really 'what values determine school selection criteria?' and here I believe we get to the heart of the matter. Ekklesia and Bartley are not just concerned about justice and fairness in access to education; they are supporters of a body that is seeking to promote the secularisation of the education system. Ekklesia states that it is 'a founder member of the Accord Coalition which seeks to make faith schools better. Accord also includes the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) and the British Humanist Association.'

This statement is rather disingenuous as examination of Accord’s aims make clear.

We believe that all state funded schools should:
1. Operate admissions policies that take no account of pupils’ – or their parents’ – religion or beliefs.
2. Operate recruitment and employment policies that do not discriminate on the grounds of religion or belief.
3. Follow an objective, fair and balanced syllabus for education about religious and non-religious beliefs – whether determined by their local authority or by any future national syllabus or curriculum for RE.
4. Be made accountable under a single inspection regime for RE, Personal, Social & Health Education (PSHE) and Citizenship.
5. Provide their pupils with inclusive, inspiring and stimulating assemblies in place of compulsory acts of worship.

What Ekklesia and Accord really mean when they say they want to make faith schools better is that they wish to remove the Christian and religious influence and ethos from schools. They are seeking secularisation so that Christianity is no more than a subject to be studied, stripping out the underlying ethos which permeates the whole of a church school community. Presumably, according to these aims, it would be OK. to study why Christians celebrate Harvest Festival but not OK. to have an assembly which was a Harvest Festival.

Bartley also complained in his article about church school discrimination in employment practices. I have to say that the church schools that I have been involved with have not discriminated regarding recruitment or employment on the grounds of church affiliation or attendance. However, there is an expectation that those applying to work in the school will be sympathetic to the ethos of the school and in the case of the teaching staff and senior management of the school, willing to attend and participate in the activities of the school. This may include attendance at acts of worship in assembly or at the local church as part of the school’s life. If someone was opposed to what the school represented in terms of its Christian ethos and was unwilling to engage in the life the school community then I find it difficult to understand how the school could be expected to employ that person.

I was the Chair of Governors of a church school that went through a difficult period with a rapid turnover of head teachers. To address the problems we appointed a very experienced man who would not have described himself as a Christian; his religion was Tottenham Hotspur F.C.! Yet, he was just what the school needed to address the problems at the time; he was fully supportive of what the school was seeking to do in serving a community with some very challenging problems and he was sympathetic to the ethos of the school.

If Ekklesia is arguing that it would be discriminatory for a church school to expect its teaching and senior management staff to be sympathetic to the Christian ethos of the school, then what they are really saying is that the school should not have an ethos that any teacher, including a secularist or atheist, could not sign up to. In other words you cannot have a church school with a particular emphasis on the Christian faith as part of its ethos because that would be to discriminate against a potential employee.

Why not just come clean Ekklesia and admit that you are opposed to the existence of church schools because that is what your policy means in practice? And while you are at it can you please explain how such as stance is not discriminatory.

I plan to post some good news stories about Church Schools in the future but for now check out Bishop Alan Wilson’s post Living Strategy for Learning in Oakley.

I have posted about the formation of Accord in Accord out of tune.

Giles Fraser has also written about Church Schools and discrimination in his Church Times column.

Ruth Gledhill has posted about Christian Values 4 Schools in her blog Articles of Faith for The Times and wrote a piece In defence of faith schools for The Times' education blog School Gate.


Jim said...

I think the issue I have with church schools is this. As a parish priest, I am intimately involved with (teach in, lead assemblies in, run after-school clubs in) three primary schools, one secondary school, two nursery usits and a toddler group. Of those, only the toddler group has any official affiliation with any of the five churches I lead. Were, though, any of the schools church schools, there would be an inbuilt expectation for me to prioritise those schools over the others, at least in terms of my time and attention. That runs absolutely counter to everything I believe about the church and about ministry - Christians are, surely, called to serve *the whole community*, not simply their own precious bits of it.

David Hodgson said...

The problem I have with using church attendance as a significant admissions criterion is that it can create a school for Christians instead of a Christian school open to its local community.Christians are meant to be salt and light but schools full of church-going kids (a) deprive other local schools of the influence of Christian parents, (b) deprive children without church-going parents of access to a Christian education

Philip Ritchie said...

Thanks for the comment. I agree, churches are called to serve the whole community as are we as clergy. Many churches established church schools in the poorest and most marginalised communities precisely for that reason. It is a sign of the commitment of the church to these communities that many of these schools have become so popular because of the quality of their education.

I have served in state schools in parishes just as faithfully as church schools, in the same way as I would seek to offer the same pastoral care to a bereaved church member as I would to any other parishoner. We have all sorts of expectation foisted on us and part of ministry is assessing priorities. Presumably you are able to balance your commitment to the church affiliated toddler group with your involvement with the nursery units.

I really don't understand why church schools have to be placed over and against other schools in a community. The vicar of the parish were I live, comprised of three villages, has a county primary and a church school primary and gives the same care and attention to both. Christians from the churches serve equally on both governing bodies because their commitment is to the school serving the community not what type of school it is.

Are you saying that the church should not be involved in the provision of education with a Christian ethos because it would take us away from serving the whole community? Many communities would be impoverished as a consequence.

It is because I believe Christians are called to serve the whole community that I want to keep church schools within the state system. As I indicated in my post the church schools I am involved with are open to the whole community but I also believe they offer something distinctive through their Christian ethos.

Philip Ritchie said...

Thanks for your comment. I agree that we must safeguard against church schools that are enclaves for Christian families, which is why I would not advocate church attendance as the primary criterion. However, I do believe that Christians should be able to send their children to a school that has a Christian ethos.

I attended a church primary school that was further away than the school in the parish where we lived. My dad was the vicar of the parish but the Head of the local school was an atheist who refused to have anything to do with the church. It was only once the Head changed that the relationship between church and school developed.

Should my parents have sent me to a school where their input was not welcomed and where the values inculcated by the Head were antagonistic to our faith?

paul said...

Thanks fort his excellent post, Philip. In my work at County level - involved in scrutiny of policy for children, schools and families - I can see the bigger picture, which is of church-foundation schools as part of a complex and nuanced field of provision.
I agree that the Ekklesia/Accord approach seems to have more to do with a kind of strident ideological position than it does with the reality on the ground.
I think that intelligent, measured formulations such as your own are much more likely to contribute to a mature consideration of these matters.
Thanks again.