The Archbishop of Canterbury’s statement that Church of England schools can move away from religious selection "opens the door" to change, say reformers.
In a recent interview with The Times newspaper, the Rt Rev Justin Welby said: “What you are seeing in the Church schools is a deeper and deeper commitment to the common good. There’s a steady move away from faith-based entry tests.”
He continued: “It is not necessary to select to get a really good school. There are unbelievably brilliant schools that are entirely open to all applicants without selection criteria apart from residence, where you live, and which produce staggeringly good results. It’s a question of – and you can point to them all over the place – it’s a question of outstanding leadership.”
Lambeth Palace immediately put out a defensive statement claiming that in spite of his comments, Archbishop Welby supports the policy of church schools setting their own admissions criteria, including faith-based ones, rather than having to follow non-discriminatory ones.
Church schools, which are largely by the general taxpayer, are allowed by law to discriminate for or against pupils on grounds of religious adherence. Many education reformers across the spectrum question the necessity, sustainability, fairness and propriety of this, as do many within the Church - despite the fact that but the Church of England has been aggressively defensive of its privilege, and that of faith foundation schools generally, in recent years.
Last night, the Anglican Bishop of Salisbury, the Rt Rev Nicholas Holtam, former rector of the famous and influential St Martin's-in-the-Field church in London, backed Archbishop Welby's statement.
He told The Times newspaper: “Church of England schools in our local communities provide an excellent education to children of all faiths and none. In only two out of 196 Church of England schools in the diocese are a majority of pupils taken on faith criteria, while in most of our schools the proportion of pupils taken on faith criteria is in the order of 5 to 10 per cent.”
This reflects the trend that some Church of England dioceses are seeing many schools that do not select most pupils on the basis of faith. This number is bound to grow, points out the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, which has challenged selection policies that discriminate on grounds of religion or belief as "un-Christian", because of changing demographics.
Professor Ted Cantle, founder of the Institute of Community Cohesion, commented: “Justin Welby’s comments in The Times make his views clear – and he is right to support a move away from faith-based selection.
“I think his comments show the contradiction between the faith’s ideals and the practice of the Church,” he added.
The Fair Admissions Campaign, which is backed by Ekklesia and others, both religious and non-religious, points out that over the past few years, there had been promises of 25 per cent, 50 per cent and even 90 per cent inclusivity -- but such promises have yet to be met in any systematic way.
A report from the Church-supported think-tank Theos, published last month, sought to undermine independent research questioning the impact of religiously selective schools, but the tide is moving in the other direction, say reformers.
Jonathan Bartley, co-director of Ekklesia, told The Times: “When you do the maths, there are simply not enough children from church-going families to fill all the places in church schools. There are many many Church of England schools that do not discriminate in employment or admissions.
"The argument that you have to have a discriminatory admissions policy in order to maintain your ethos is demonstrable nonsense. The position the Church has held in the past is simply not tenable any more,” he said.
Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, chair of the Accord Coalition, which campaigns for inclusion, and which Ekklesia helped to set up, described the Archbishop of Canterbury's remarks as "a breath of fresh air", but also pointed out that while the Church of England had “made commitments towards greater inclusivity at its schools in recent years, but has not delivered”.
The issue of Church schools will be debated at the Church of England's General Synod, its highest decision-making body, in London next week, on Tuesday 19 November 2013.
Rabbi Romain added: “So that the Church cannot be accused of chasing headlines, it now needs to offer clear leadership to bring about a lasting cultural change. First steps could include ensuring that all Church of England schools admit at least 25 per cent of pupils without recourse to religious belief or practice, as it committed to the Government it would do back in 2006, and for its guidance on admissions to Church of England schools to be revised, so that serving the whole community is set out clearly as a key expression of the mission of it schools.
“Justin Welby’s position should be noted by other religious groups with regard to their schools too, which should also be open and inclusive, and not serve to ghettoise children of different backgrounds from each other,” he said.
The Accord Coalition was launched in 2008 and brings together religious and non-religious organisations who want state-funded schools to be made open and suitable to all, regardless of people or their family’s religious or non-religious beliefs.
It campaigns to end religious discrimination in school staffing and admissions, and for all state funded schools to provide PSHE, as well as assemblies and Religious Education that boost mutual understanding and teach about the broad range of beliefs in our increasingly diverse society.
* More about Accord: http://accordcoalition.org.uk/