Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Church School School Church

Lots of things exorcise clergy and among that long list of things is the issue of admission of children to church schools and the behavioral effects so precipitated.

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the process in many places in Britain, let me summarize. You have a church school, often regarded as a good school to go to by local parents. In order to gain access to that school, there are many hoops through which to launch, significant among which is the one that attends to church attendance. In short, if you go to church you stand a better chance (and if you also live within the catchment area, that you own a blue car, that your dog is spotty, that you have never suffered from psoriasis, that you can claim a blood-line to Tharg the Caveman, that you speak fluent Mayan and that your roof is tiled with slates hewn from the rocks around the Rhonda Valley). To demonstrate church attendance, it has been known for people to, well, attend church so that their Supplementary Forms can be signed by a beneficent cleric and sent off to County Hall. The problem that some clerics have is that some of those who attended church for the School Forms did so only for the School Forms - the raggedy rascals. 

I was challenged yesterday to express my views on this. I ought to say that I am a Governor at a church school so my view will be expressed responsibly, but a view I have and express it I will. 

Let's start at the top. In church-life, we as Christians are taught to love our neighbours as ourselves. This is a basic tenet of the Christian faith which is therefore a basic tenet of schools under our care (in whatever form or level that care comes). I think that it falls apart if our church school will admit a practicing Christian who lives five miles away, but excludes Little Johnny from next door because he doesn't fancy Sunday School. If church excludes its neighbours then we get it wrong. However, I believe that a church school serves Christians in a good and healthy way, and in an ideal world I would choose a church school every time for my children (I ought to say that they don't attend a church school by dint of circumstance, but attend a very good school nearby). The ability to claim Christian discipleship is something that needs to be taken seriously, but to a reasonable limit, so that practicing Christians can find places for their children in schools that express openly the same ethos. 

Back to these church-attending parents. Some fear that this 'use' of us as worshipping communities is inappropriate and difficult and that people just shouldn't do that sort of thing. Whilst I sympathize with the view, I have greater faith than that. As a vicar, I can never fully know why any of my parishioners come to church, let alone to denote them as altruistic or 'right'. Speaking only for myself, I only ever went to church for selfish reasons, that reason being so that I could build my relationship with God. Let us assume that we cannot form a two-class system of Genuine Christians and Faux Christians - and we make that assumption knowing that it is a distinction that cannot be evidenced. Unless I am mistaken, it not my job as Vicar to ask why they have entered my doors, but to be glad that they did and to make their experience of faith and church meaningful and appealing. Rather than writing them off as "mickey-takers", I welcome them as a gift from God. 

So yes, a church school should offer a small percentage of its places for practicing Christians. I think most people would accept that as a reasonable thing to do. But it should be a small percentage, and a percentage that is not exercised over and above our basic Christian mandates to love and hospitality. As for the attending parents - let them have their forms. My job is to do what I can to keep them coming, not lament another family who stopped. 


  1. The reality in our Benefice is that the admissions system within Kent as a County has been changed. No longer are admissions administered by the schools, but by the County Education Authority. So, going to church in our benefice and living in the parish, no longer guarantee a place in the church school. This seems to be short sighted and cumbersome, particularly as children from outlying villages with their own schools are now having to be bussed to schools elsewhere and the reverse applies.

    It's costly and inconvenient and has resulted in young mothers with two or more children at different schools being required to move them some miles, for similar start times. No wonder home schooling and new, independent local schools are rising in popularity.

  2. I'm intrigued by the labyrinthine complexity of the school system in this country. The idea that some schools are "good" schools, much sought after, and some schools are "bad" or at least less good schools which are to be avoided strikes me as putting more emphasis on school education than perhaps is correct.

    My understanding is that league tables and poverty levels are strongly correlated. That is to say that, generally speaking, schools in areas with higher poverty do not achieve the same academic results as schools in more affluent areas. This is not surprising: pupils living in poverty may be hungry, neglected, living in crowded conditions and a whole host of the other stresses that go with a family struggling to make ends meet. And unlike their more privileged counterparts, if they encounter academic difficulty and their parents don't have the time or ability to tutor them, the likelihood of their families being able to afford extra tuition is low.

    I don't know how church schools fit into this general trend; I am sure that all schools work hard to do the very best for their students.

    I do know there is no church school in our parish, while the one in <a href=">the next deanery</a> is highly sought-after (I believe it is the nearest church school).

    I don't have any problem with parents bringing their children to church in order to sort out the School Forms. I re-started going to church because it was the easiest way to visit a friend who had moved away (to be ordained), and it was only later that I began to realise I had to take Christianity seriously again. I'm certainly not going to criticise anyone else's motives for attending church: I am more interested in what happens after they get there. It is regrettable that the decisions about catchment areas are such that some people may feel manipulated into attending church simply because they want what is best for their children, but I do think individual schools and churches are acting in good faith here, and all we can do is hope and pray that parents are, too.

    However, I think there may be a valid criticism to be made here. Having a (good) church school associated with a parish seems to be something that does benefit the church in question...but I think that the disparity in quality of schools, and hence the demand for places at "good" schools, probably has more to do with the general inequalities in society than with the quality of teaching at any one institution. I am deeply uncomfortable with the thought that any church might benefit from these inequalities. In fairness, I don't know whether the numbers add up. It would be interesting to look at the top and bottom 15% of church schools and see how strongly those correlate with the Church Urban Fund poverty statistics.

    In addition I am wary that the advantage to those churches associated with schools is significant enough to pose a problem for smaller, poorer parishes -- especially when it involves families who live in the poorer parish attending church in the richer one because of the school association, as I have seen happen. It would be very easy to mend this: don't prioritise the local church in school selection criteria but allow any C of E church to "count". I can't speak for our vicar, but I don't imagine he'd mind having to sign some School Forms.

    (sorry if this is a duplicate -- rascally blogspot appears to have eaten my previous comment!)



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