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 Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.