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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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.