Turning up for the debate on church schools

Turning up for the debate on church schools

Talking of grumping about exclusion - the Church of England Board of Education and the Catholic Education Service apparently think they weren't given a fair chance to air their views at the recent ATL conference meeting on faith schools.

The background, for those who have missed it, is that the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) has produced a position paper on faith schools addressing problems of access discrimination, employment policy, inclusion and community cohesion. It argues (as Ekklesia does) that publicly-funded schools should be accountable and open to all.

We go further. We think that privileging the interests of church-going parents over others goes against the Gospel message of favour-free love, and we think that a "Christian school" would be one that favoured those excluded or at the margins of society, not people who have the time, money or possibility of jumping through ecclesiastical hoops.

Naturally, those who run church schools with taxpayers' money and defend the current arrangements take a different view - though the number of clergy, chaplains, parents and others in the Christian community who have questions about this is much larger than often gets acknowledged.

Anyway, the ATL decided to have a meeting on faith schools at its annual conference earlier this month. I spoke at it, on behalf of Ekklesia. So did Andrew Copson from the British Humanist Association. The organiser tried hard to get speakers (especially an Anglican and a Catholic) who would put the view for advocates of religiously-affiliated schools.

When the Church Times reported this on 30 March 2007, they said there was "an 11th-hour invitation [that] had been sent to the C of E and the RC Church to attend the ATL debate". That's funny, because I know from my own correspondence that the organiser was making approaches two weeks beforehand - and that the union got some, shall we say, "sniffy" responses in some quarters.

Maybe a fortnight seems "11th hour" to some, but in a media environment it's plenty of notice. We frequently get a lot less, and we don't have employees and big budgets, unlike others who were approached.

Similarly, it was suggested to me that "the timing was wrong for the churches, because of the run-in to Holy Week". This is an interesting argument. First, having worked both for the C of E and ecumenical bodies, I know that, although it can be a busy period, people are available. If clergy can't be, there are many lay people with plenty of professional experience in the area.

Second, the complaint once again illustrates what we are often referring to on Ekklesia as "the Christendom mindset". When the church and its message was fully ingrained in the culture and its institutions, it could be taken for granted that other people would know and fit in with the Church Calendar. But that is no longer the case. Indeed a couple of people who I chatted to after the ATL meeting had no idea what Holy Week was.

If Christians wish to engage with others, they can no longer assume that it will always be on terms which are convenient to them. The onus is on them to go out of the way (in a manner that Jesus described the priestly class as struggling to do in the parable of the Good Samaritan). And insofar as this represents a shift away from ecclesiastical presumption, it is a healthy spiritual state of affairs for the church, I'd say.

Underlying all this is, it seems to me, a failure on the part of the large churches to take seriously the concerns raised about faith schools. It is all too easy to write these off as the work of a "liberal elite" and of "aggressive secularists". In fact I have talked to many clergy and chaplains who feel embarrassed and compromised by the admissions policies of church schools. There are parents who protest about them. There are governors who try to change them. And I recently spoke to a C of E diocesan education officer who thanked Ekklesia for being prepared to speak up about this.

So there is a debate to be had, and it shouldn't just be conducted in the corridors of power, in behind-the-scenes deals with government, or at the Athenaeum Club (where Jonathan and I were invited for one conversation). The defensive shields need to come down and the talking needs to get more publicly positive.

That's why I welcome the ATL's position. Not just because I agree with their concerns, but because they are trying to address them constructively. The fact is, these issues won't go away.

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