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.