Church of England schools admissions still discriminatory, say critics

All new Church of England schools should have at least a quarter of admission places available to non-Christians but Parliament should not expect the same commitment from other faith communities, the chair of the C of E Board of Education has told the Secretary of State for Education.

The move is seen by defenders of faith schools as indicative of their desire for plurality. But critics have immediately pointed out that the assumption of the new statement is that most places are still determined by faith allegiance and that this approach simply institutionalises selection by religion.

The director of the UK Christian think tank Ekklesia, Jonathan Bartley, has described the move as “a gesture towards social and educational inclusion in the face of an overall policy which is, at heart, designed to privilege church-goers over others in publicly funded schools. This is unacceptable.”

The Church of England statement is also undermined by the fact that, according to The Times newspaper, children may be required to go to church at least twice a month to get a place at popular faith schools, Canon John Hall, the Church of England’s current head of education, has suggested.

In his letter to Alan Johnson, the Bishop of Portsmouth, the Rt Rev Dr Kenneth Stevenson, writes: “As chairman of the Board of Education and National Society, and as the Church of England’s spokesman on education in the House of Lords, I want to make a specific commitment that all new Church of England schools should have at least 25% of places available to children with no requirement that they be of practising Christian families. The places would not be left empty if they were not filled by such children, so this would technically not be a ‘quota’ but a ‘proportion’. This commitment relates explicitly to new Church of England schools.”

Bishop Stevenson goes on to say: “It has been suggested that all ‘faith schools’ without exception should make this commitment. I want to be clear that I would not support that proposal. This is a commitment for the Church of England not a statement of policy for all schools with a religious character. As I have said before, the Church supports the provision of more schools by and for the faith communities. It would not be right, in our view, for Parliament to require the same commitment from them as well. They are themselves a sign of inclusion and their very existence promotes community cohesion, which would be further enhanced by the development of robust and effective educational links between schools of a different character.”

The problem with this approach, say critics, is that it is patronizing towards other faith groups and, crucially, leaves untouched the problem that in many areas the presence of schools selecting on religious criteria leaves parents with few or restricted choices. Having a variety of discriminatory policies, some unattenuated, does not promote community cohesion, they say. It increases it.

The Bishop of Portsmouth claims that “The Church of England is strongly committed to providing schools that are distinctively Christian and at the same time inclusive. I welcome the fact that Church of England schools in many parts of the country have really significant proportions of pupils of the world faiths other than Christianity and of no particular faith.”

He says that of 22 Church of England secondary schools recently opened, the majority are serving more disadvantaged communities and have inclusive admissions policies. Most give priority to local children or do not admit on the basis of faith. Of the rest, only one has a proportion of places for local as opposed to faith priority lower than 50%, allocating 33% of places to those of other faiths and on a local basis.

But the Church of England has admitted to Ekklesia that it has no on which of its schools discriminate and which do not. It is therefore difficult to assess the validity of general church claims. Meanwhile, equality campaigners are annoyed that the government has not published any gender-specific statistics on faith schools and is not aware of any research in this area. It says that rectifying this would be too expensive, but will be required legally to address the issue by 2007.

Declared Ekklesia’s Jonathan Bartley: “This latest statement from the Church of England is wholly inadequate. In our view it is un-Christian for Christians to seek to give themselves privileges of any kind within the public education system. Self-interest is the opposite of what the Gospel is about. A truly 'Christian school' would be one that seeks to be open to all – and which pays particular attention to the needs of marginalized and poorer communities. Using church-going as a way of assigning school places is wrong.”