The church school paradox

Do faith schools have an unfair advantage in Britain today?

A report issued by the Church of England last month declared that its schools were "at the centre of its mission" to society. There's a technical sense (which the report acknowledged) in which that statement is quite accurate: there are more children in the church's schools than there are worshippers in its pews every Sunday. There are millions of people in this country whose main or only contact with institutional religion comes through education. You could almost say that the C of E is now principally an education provider with a small but lucrative sideline in weddings and funerals.

Moreover, the faith school sector, of which the Church of England is the major player (and, along with the Roman Catholic Church, overwhelmingly dominant) is growing rapidly, encouraged both by government policy and the perceived enthusiasm of parents.  As the report pointed out, the past ten years have seen the greatest expansion of Church school places for the past two centuries. Some of these places are in entirely new schools, others in existing schools that have acquired a faith character. In the same period, church attendance has continued to fall, albeit at a slower rate than in previous decades, and there has been a significant decline in the proportion of people who self-identify as Christians in opinion surveys.

The British Humanist Association has today produced figures which, they argue, indicate that many of the new faith schools are being established "by the back door". In the last five years, they reveal, every single faith school "fast-tracked through the opening process without competition" was approved, whereas fewer than half of similarly structured proposals for secular schools were successful. Where an open process is used, on the other hand, proposals for new faith schools are much less likely to be affected. The organisation further notes that over the past five years no schools lost a religious character through amalgamation, but 32 without a religious character gained one.

You don't have to be a member of the BHA to see in these statistics a somewhat paradoxical state of affairs. Faith schools are currently very popular with politicians.  Education Secretary Michael Gove recently stated that he "cherished" the church's role in educational provision and that he was working with the C of E "to extend the role of the Church". In so doing, he's continuing the work of his New Labour predecessors.  Many would put the spread of faith schools down to their popularity with parents - especially with middle class parents who care most about the discipline and good exam results that such schools are held to encourage.  

The BHA's Andrew Copson can point to polling evidence to claim that "the public do not want religious schools - they want more inclusive schools."  Maybe.  But the huge demand for places at such schools  tells a different story.  The parents who fake religious devotion to get their child into the local C of E primary are not just the stuff of urban folklore.  A clergyman friend of mine once described seeing parents queue up to sign an attendance register after morning service at one church (not his), a practice which he described as "degrading the sacraments of Christ's Kingdom by making them entry requirements for something they have nothing to do with."  

Not all church schools operate like this; if they did, the churches would be fuller than they are now.  But even allotting a minority of places to the children of regular worshippers risks giving such children an unfair advantage, or else adding to the advantages they already possess.  A Guardian report last month revealed that faith schools tended to have a more affluent demographic than the surrounding area, at least when judged by the proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals.

If parents benefit from having good local schools, the churches benefit from having a captive audience.  The latest C of E report quoted approvingly from another church document of two years ago entitled "Going for Growth: transformation for children, young people and the church".  It highlighted that report's "three key principles that apply equally to children of the faith, of other faiths and of no faith", one of which was that the church should "work towards every child and young person having a life-enhancing encounter with the Christian faith and the person of Jesus Christ."  

In other words, evangelising non-Christians (potentially even adherents of other faiths) is now seen as part of the core purpose of Church of England schools.  Last month's study also mentioned the Church of England's Dearing Report, ten years ago, which had stressed "the crucial importance of employing Christian teachers and school leaders".  Given the expansion of the sector, such an approach risks unfairly restricting the job prospects of non-religious teachers.  And the report as a whole proposed not only accelerating the expansion of church schools but at the same time deepening and strengthening their Christian character.

This is bound to lead to more controversies like this week's about Catholic schools urging their pupils to sign up to a petition against same-sex marriage. It also suggests a conflict of interest.  No one would claim that church schools function as religious indoctrination camps.  But if providing education is part of the "central mission" of the church in modern Britain, indeed the church's main growth-area, there will be a temptation to make schools the frontline in an increasingly bitter fight against the forces of secularism.  

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Why Podemos will defeat the Spanish Socialists

A new alliance on the Spanish Left will be stronger than the sum of its parts.

On Saturday morning, on a palm-tree lined promenade in the small city of Badalona in eastern Catalonia, a 38-year-old woman named Mar García Puig fanned herself with her speaking notes after taking her turn on the stage.

Until six months ago, Puig was a literary editor with no professional experience in politics apart from attending demonstrations and rallies. Then, in December, her life was transformed twice over. In the national election, she won a parliamentary seat for En Comú Podem, the Catalan regional ally of the anti-austerity party Podemos. Four hours after she learned of her victory, Puig gave birth to twins.

Fortunately Puig’s husband, who is a teacher, was able to take paternity leave so that she could take up her seat. In parliament, Puig “felt like an alien”, she told me over coffee. As it turned out, she had to give up her seat prematurely anyway – along with all the other Spanish MPs – when repeated attempts to form a government failed. So now, in the lead-up to Spain’s first repeat election of the modern era, to be held on 26 June, Puig was on the campaign trail once more in a drive to win a parliamentary seat.

The December general election was as historic as it was inconclusive, ushering in a novel political era in Spain and leaving the country with the most fragmented parliament in its history. Fed up with corruption, austerity and a weak recovery from the global financial crisis, voters punished the mainstream parties, ending the 40-year dominance of the conservative Partido Popular (People’s Party) and the centre-left PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), which have held power since the death of General Franco. Neither group was able to win an absolute majority as new parties from both ends of the political spectrum garnered support from disenchanted voters.

On the left, Podemos, which was only founded in March 2014 by the ponytailed political scientist Pablo Iglesias, won 20 per cent of the vote. Ciudadanos (Citizens), formed in Catalonia a decade ago and occupying the centre left or centre right, depending on which analyst you talk to, secured a 14 per cent share.

Despite having four months to form a coalition government, the two biggest political parties could not reach a deal. The People’s Party, which had implemented a harsh austerity package over the past five years, recorded its worst electoral performance since 1989, losing 16 percentage points. It still won the most votes, however, and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was the first leader to be asked by King Felipe VI to form a government.

By the end of January, Rajoy conceded defeat after the PSOE refused to join his “grand coalition”. The Socialists then failed in their own attempt to form a government, leading the king to dissolve parliament and call a fresh election.

Despite the inconvenience of having to campaign nationwide once again – and being away from her twins – Mar García Puig’s enthusiasm for her new career is undiminished. “In Spain there is a window of opportunity,” she said. “There is a receptiveness to politics that there wasn’t before.”

When the repeat elections were called, some questioned whether Podemos and its regional allies could mobilise its supporters to the same extent as in December. Yet Puig believes that the party’s appeal has grown further in the six months that the country has been without a government. “We are still new and Podemos has this freshness – it can still make people join,” she told me.

The following day, as the church bells rang at noon in the Basque city of Bilbao, crowds gathered for another rally. For protection against the sun, Podemos supporters had covered their heads with purple triangular paper hats displaying the party name as it will appear on the ballot paper: Unidos Podemos, or “United We Can”.

In May, Podemos entered into an alliance with Izquierda Unida (United Left), the radical left-wing party that includes the Communist Party of Spain, and which won 3 per cent of the vote in December. Izquierda Unida is headed by Alberto Garzón, a 30-year-old Marxist economist who, according to a poll by the state-run CIS research institute, is the most highly rated party leader in Spain. Unlike Podemos’s Iglesias, who can fire up a crowd and is seen by some as divisive, Garzón is a calm and articulate politician who appeals to disaffected voters.

Nagua Alba, who at 26 is Podemos’s youngest MP, said the new alliance would be stronger than the sum of its parts, because Spain’s voting system punishes smaller parties when it comes to allocating seats in parliament. “It [the alliance] will attract all those people that aren’t convinced yet. It shows we can all work together,” Alba said.

As part of the agreement with Podemos, Izquierda Unida has agreed to drop its demands for a programme of renationalisation and withdrawing Spain from Nato. The alliance is campaigning on a platform of reversing Rajoy’s labour reforms, removing the national debt ceiling, opposing the TTIP trade deal, and increasing the minimum wage to €900 a month. A Unidos Podemos government would attempt to move the EU’s economic policy away from austerity and towards a more expansionist stance, joining a broader effort that involves Greece, Italy and Portugal. It is also committed to offering the Catalans a referendum on independence, a move that the mainstream parties strongly oppose.

The latest polls suggest that Unidos Podemos will become Spain’s second-biggest party, with 26 per cent of the vote, behind Rajoy’s Popular Party. The Socialist Party looks poised to fall into third place, with 21 per cent, and Ciudadanos is expected to hold its 14 per cent share. If the polls are accurate, the PSOE will face a difficult choice that highlights how far its stock has fallen. It can choose to enter as a junior partner into a coalition with the insurgent left, which has politically outmanoeuvred it. Or it could decide to prop up a Partido Popular-led right-wing coalition, serving as a constraint on power. 

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain