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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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.