Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Church Schools?

Reports that the Church of England's new guidelines on church schools would insist that children of regular worshippers no longer get automatic priority over less regular congregation members for classroom places, seem to have been exaggerated. Yet its critics have accused it of having watered down its initial recommendations.
The new guidelines published by the Church of England are  [here]

"...The message from history and theology is that there is a mission imperative that underpins the Church’s provision of schools. Schools therefore hold in balance the nurture and service roles, mirroring the Church’s own purposes in both building up those of the faith and of serving and reaching out to those not of the faith. All Church of England schools have a vocation to be distinctive and inclusive, whether or not their admissions policy specify a particular proportion of open and foundation places.
 35. In individual schools the balance between nurture and service will depend on ethos, history and tradition, local circumstances, including whether there are other Church of England schools in the area and the current governors’ commitment to the purposes of the school. When a governing body reviews its Admissions Policy, it should have regard to the responsibility of all Church schools to be living Christian communities strongly related to the local community. In recognition of the vocation of the Church to transform the world, Church schools should also seek to be inclusive of the wider community. There are a number of ways by which inclusiveness can be interpreted, but all Church schools should ensure that their policies do make that provision. In some cases policies based solely on the immediate, local neighbourhood may not in fact create a diverse community reflective of the wider area and that too needs to be taken into account.
 36. Church of England schools should be able to show how their Admissions Policy and practice demonstrates the school’s commitment both to distinctiveness and inclusivity, to church families and the wider community.
 37. The Church of England stands ready to give support to the small number of schools that currently only admit children from Christian families to enable them to provide some open places available to the local community... "
The Bishop of Oxford, however, had been cited in the Daily Telegraph  and other newspapers over the weekend to the effect that proposals would end the "points systems" under which classroom places are offered to children whose families are most involved in the church, and that church schools would also be told to give priority to "inclusiveness" if they serve communities which are not "reflective of the wider area".
But it seems that the new guidelines may not be, depending upon their interpretation, quite so prescriptive.

"The new guidance will say that Anglican schools have a duty of "mission" which means "a bias in favour of the disadvantaged", and say they have a "vocation to the poor".
Introducing the document, the Rt Rev John Pritchard, the Bishop of Oxford, who is chairman of the church's board of education, is expected to say the advice is "a reminder of what Church schools are for in this sea of change".
The bishop will say the new guidelines will help to demonstrate the Church is "committed to both distinctiveness and inclusivity".
Currently around a million children are being educated in the Church's 4,841 schools - many of which have excellent academic records and are heavily oversubscribed.
The admissions advice will apply to any school where demand for places exceeds supply."
[Report from the Daily Telegraph]

So is this a very limited and  long overdue clarification of some of the issues surrounding the admissions policies of Church schools, or can it be portrayed as just another stage in the long saga of the death-wish of the Church of England?
We all know that State education in the United Kingdom, ruined by generations of politicians from across the political spectrum, has long ceased in practice to be primarily about the process of educating our children and is now far more concerned with utopian social engineering.
It would be a great pity if the Church were to jump on this particular band-wagon because it is by no means clear that the educational success of one person is paid for by the failure of another. To provide distinctiveness and inclusivity is a very difficult balance to achieve.
But what is very clear from the confusing stories which preceded the publication of the document is that many of those responsible for Anglican schools are worried above all by (statistically far from fair) accusations from some in the educational establishment - and from secularist politicians who are opposed in principle to the very existence of faith schools - that church schools merely create havens of middle class social exclusivity. Such critics will never be satisfied with anything less than the complete abolition of church schools, so it was good to read in the report both a history and a theological defence of the Church's continuing role in education.
Of course, many Church schools are over-subscribed and the main reason for that is both the quality of the education they provide and the Christian ethos of the schools themselves.
It is difficult to see how the eradication of centres of excellence, diversity and civility, or the dilution of the 'religious' element in the community life of church schools, would be in the interests of anyone, most particularly those from backgrounds of multiple deprivation who already attend them and for whom education can provide a way of escape into a wider, better and more fulfilling life (and I'm fully aware of the hackles such language will raise among some.)
Surely, given the nature of the society in which we live, that should be at least among the aims of a Christian education.
So, rather than destroy something which is working, however imperfectly, perhaps the church should concentrate on what it already does so well in order to demonstrate that its vocation for the poor and its bias in favour of the disadvantaged isn't just the conventional rhetoric of a generation ago (the Church sometimes does have a genius for advocating today yesterday's discredited nostrums), and continue to set up inner city academies and even, dare I say it, 'free schools' to provide a faith-based education to those most in need of them.
But concern for the poor should not preclude a ministry to the affluent and those with influence; the mission to inculcate the Christian values of self-sacrifice, genuine love of one's neighbour, compassion and social responsibility among the children of the opinion formers of our society is a worthwhile venture, too, and can only help those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.
Or so one would have thought...

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