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.

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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