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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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?