A schoolchild at a service. Photo: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images
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The problem with church schools? They run counter to Christian values

Church schools don't help the poorest residents, as they're designed to - instead, they fill with middle-class children whose parents feign faith.

Would you pretend to be Jewish to secure some sort of advantage for yourself? Would you go even further, attending synagogue once a week for a full year, mouthing the ancient prayers, in order to get what you want? 

You might think that such behaviour would be an insult to real Jews in the community.

This prompts the question: why is it socially acceptable for atheists and agnostics to feign their commitment to the Anglican faith to get their kids into a good state school? The answer is that the Church encourages them to do so. This kind of strategic middle-class church attendance produces high-achieving schools and swells congregations in many parishes. It suits the Church and it suits the sharp-elbowed – a formidable alliance. The practice seems particularly widespread in London, where it is standard behaviour among well-heeled, well-informed parents. It’s an unwritten rule of middle-class family life.

Hard evidence is elusive as people would rather not own up to hypocrisy, but a survey commissioned by the Sutton Trust in 2013 showed a significant number admitting to inauthentic churchgoing: 6 per cent of parents with children at state schools said they went to church so that their child could get a place at a faith school. Among parents in the highest socio-economic group, the level of false church attendance was 10 per cent.

Yet there is a downside for the Church – it gets accused of colluding in social division, allowing its schools to become middle-class enclaves even though they were set up to serve the poorest in the area. This in turn alienates parents who cannot get their child into a church school even if there’s one at the end of the street. Such families may see the Church as a club from which they are being excluded, when previously they might have felt that it formed a vague part of their cultural identity.

The system creates an image problem for an institution that claims to serve the common good and to fight inequality. Selecting pupils by church attendance puts a question mark over those intentions – a price worth paying, some seem to think, for those above-average results and swelling congregations.

Yet there have been signs that the Church is rethinking its position, or at least trying to climb on to the fence. In 2011, John Pritchard, the Church of England’s bishop then in charge of education, said C of E schools should do better at highlighting their service to the entire community, and that this included rethinking their admissions policies. He suggested that just 10 per cent of places should be reserved for children who attend church, but insisted that such quotas were a matter for governors – as a result of which nothing happened. Most governors and parents seem determined that the schools retain admissions policies that bring in a higher class of intake. They call it preserving the schools’ “Christian ethos”.

The Church of England’s chief education officer, Nigel Genders, tells me that new C of E schools are “using distance from the school as the criterion for at least half of the intake but, in most cases, for even more than that”. Is that a tacit admission that selection by church attendance favours the middle class and that open admissions are the way forward? “No,” he says. “There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution. Admission by distance from the school can lead to selection by house price, which is equally likely to favour the middle classes. Attending church is available to all, free of charge.” In other words: there is no problem.

The Church’s new chair of education, Stephen Conway, the Bishop of Ely, is still consulting on the issue. He is likely to echo the views of his predecessor and his chief education officer and give the impression that open admission is the best option – without putting any pressure on schools to change their policies. The problem is likely to persist.

Perhaps calls for reform will come from vicars who have lost patience with the present system: those who feel that it is impeding the Church’s mission. Still, it’s difficult to be hardline about the matter, one vicar (who wishes to remain anonymous) told me recently.

“The whole system runs counter to the Gospel,” the vicar thinks, though he doesn’t want to be unfriendly to parents who ask him to sign forms saying they attend church. “But I would refuse to keep any kind of register, or to co-operate by making distinctions between different ‘levels’ of churchgoing,” he said. “My practice is to subvert the system by counting all who come to me as being ‘at the heart of the church’, which is the phrase used by our local church schools for the ‘highest grade’ of churchgoer.”

Another vicar who is also not quite “out” told me how in his parish a fight for a last school place nearly went to court, with one family claiming to have been keener churchgoers than another. He was told by his area dean that he had to keep a register in order to avoid such disputes. “I did so for a couple of years but then I thought, ‘No, this isn’t right.’ We have clear proof that most of the families don’t keep attending once their child is in the school. So what’s the real point of the system? To preserve the school’s middle-class character, to keep out the kids from the housing estate down the road.”

Maybe such vicars will soon decide that enough is enough – that this is a system which mires the Church in snobbery and inauthenticity and deserves to be pulled down. Perhaps some new Luther will nail a note of protest to the door of the local church school admissions office. 

This article first appeared in the 27 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Russia vs the west

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.