The Church of England is planning a rapid expansion of publicly-funded schools in its control, but it faces a challenge from parents, teachers, unions, academics, clergy and many others who want to see an end to its discriminatory policies on admissions and employment.
Yesterday the C of E, which is established by law under the Crown, launched a website, including a video message from the Archbishop of Canterbury, defending its policies and practices.
The website (www.christianvalues4schools.co.uk) identifies fifteen core values that it says make Christian schools popular with parents and students. They include service, trust, justice and forgiveness. Each is backed up by biblical verses and theological explanations.
The website is the creation of John Saxbee, the Bishop of Lincoln and chair of the Church of England Board of Education and the National Society for Promoting Religious Education. It marks a new phase in the Church’s plans to open more state secondary schools, reports the Times newspaper.
But those who wish to see reform of church schools - which are paid for by the taxpayer but allowed to discriminate against non-churchgoers - say that the Church must now learn to practise what it preaches.
Under the section on 'Justice' the new Church of England website speaks of: "acting out of a concern for what is right and seeing right prevail", "especially for those who suffer most and are least able to protect themselves."
It stresses that: "[j]ustice is not about a culture which encourages everyone to insist on their own rights at the expense of others. It is about a community that knows that everyone's well-being is bound up with that of everyone else."
However, critics say that in practice, the Church of England has repeatedly defended discriminatory employment and admissions policies for its schools. These put the interests of children who attend churches before others in the community. They prevent those who do not hold Christian beliefs from applying for jobs at church schools. But these same schools are almost entirely funded by the taxpayer. One third of primary schools are church schools.
The Church of England's education chiefs appear to believe that they have won what they characterise as a 'battle' against critics by dismissing independent research on problem areas, using examples of good practice to push away attention from poor practice, appealing to wealthy and middle-class parents to defend privilege and trying to claim that only 'hardline secularists' want change or oppose restrictive government and faith community policies on schooling.
However, repeated opinion polling in the UK shows a persistently large number of people who are dissatisfied with the status quo and independent research by the Runnymede Trust, the Institute of Education, the London School of Economics and others suggests that social segregation and academic performance dependent on social selection remain serious problems.
In September last year, a new coalition called Accord (http://www.accordcoalition.org.uk/), which brings together religious and non-religious people and organisations who want to see publicly funded schooling open to all, was launched.
Accord, whose founding members include the Christian think-tank Ekklesia, the teaching union ATL and the British Humanist Association, argues for a reform agenda which challenges a negatively polarised 'pro-' and 'anti-' argument with positive proposals for change.
Ekklesia's co-director, Jonathan Bartley, says that it is "most welcome that the Church of England has at last set out what it means by a 'Christian ethos' for its schools." But he points out that much of what appears on its website in terms of espoused values is contradicted by current policy.
"Discriminatory admissions and employment policies not only undermine the community ethos of a school, they are also at odds with the core values of the Christian faith," said Bartley.
He continued: "By the Church's own definition, Christians should want schools based on social justice, which it specifically says 'is not about a culture which encourages everyone to insist on their own rights at the expense of others. It is about a community that knows that everyone's well-being is bound up with that of everyone else's.' It is time for the Church to put into action what it believes.
"A good start would be for the Church to meet with parents whose children who have been treated unfairly by Church schools and whose children have been prevented from attending Church schools because they aren't of a Christian faith," he suggested.
Another Ekklesia director, Simon Barrow, is on the Accord steering group. He says that "the Church of England now has an opportunity to engage in an open and honest way with its constructive critics, recognising that there ought to be a mutual interest in ensuring the best for all children - not just those of church-goers."
Ekklesia argues that 'Christian ethos' should mean genuine concern for one's neighbour and alternative practices like restorative disciplinary policies, not "preferential treatment for those in one's own tribe and putting the self-interest of institutions over the needs of the community."
The Church of England has previously argued that discrimination in employment and admissions is necessary to maintain 'a Christian ethos'. But Ekklesia points out that there are barely enough Christian head-teachers in the country to provide even half the existing Church Schools with a head, let alone all of them.
Similarly, it is the oversubscribed church schools which discriminate in admissions. Unless the Church is saying that these schools have lost their Christian ethos, it is clearly not the case that discrimination is necessary to maintain the ethos of a church school, says the think-tank.
Ekklesia also points out that the values spelled out on the new Church of England website are widely shared by people of other faith and of good faith, so that "there is absolutely no need to set Christians over and against others, especially when the schools in question are funded by people of all faiths and none."
"Christians are specifically enjoined by their founder to set aside self-regard and to serve others. This ought not to be dismissed as a smug aspiration but as a practical aim. We are rightly estimated on our actions, not just our words," said Simon Barrow.
More about Accord: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/accord