This is an edited version of a talk given at a meeting on faith schools at the Liberal Democrats’ Spring conference on 7 March 2009. The speakers were the Rev Jeremy Chadd and Rabbi Jonathan Romain.
I very much agree with the aims of Accord in making all publicly-funded schools, including those labelled ‘faith schools’, open to and engaged with the whole community. I hope that in their policy debate, the Liberal Democrats can open up fruitful conversation on this topic, one that is so often discussed either in a polarized way, or with the realities swept under the carpet. It may be helpful if I give an account of how I see faith schools working from my experience, within the Church of England.
I’m vicar of a very ordinary Anglican church in the outer city area of Sunderland. It’s a parish which is a mixture of about a quarter of quite prosperous private housing, and three quarters of local authority housing estate and tower blocks. The social housing estates rank amongst the 10% most deprived areas in Britain.
We’ve always had strong and mutually supportive relationship with our local community schools, two primaries and a big secondary. The secondary school is set in the middle of the council estates. It’s worked hard at building an inclusive and happy learning community, with students from both deprived and prosperous areas of its catchment. I know that personally, as well as through my professional involvement, because my own two children went there, and flourished. I believe that her own faith is the more mature because of growing up in a diverse and challenging environment, not a hothouse of ‘Christian certainty’.
But now we have nearby in the next parish a big new C of E secondary school, part of the new wave of such schools. And the same thing happens as in other areas with church secondaries: new people turn up at church. And after attending for a decent while, they ask for support for their application for a church place at the church school. When I ask them why, they start off by talking the language of wanting Christian values. I think they assume that’s what I want to hear. But on further discussion, they almost invariably end up saying, one way or another: “It’ll be a school with more people like us in it, fewer difficult children.”
Almost invariably, these people disappear once a letter backing admission to the church school is signed. I don’t care about the disappearance: I do care about colluding in encouraging dishonesty. And I care still more about colluding in a system where the church helps to give more advantage to those already advantaged, and to further exclude the disadvantaged and marginalized.
You could say that everyone has access to do the same thing, but they don’t. The parents who are organized and articulate and knowledgeable enough to do that are always from the prosperous bit of our community. They know how to play the system in a convincing way.
The Church of England seems to me to have abandoned its proud history in education of seeking to serve the wider community, and instead to be serving its own interests. We also seem as a church to lack any honesty in recognising this. The rhetoric from the church is about serving communities, and providing something spiritually special which parents want. Actually, what I see is a church, fearful of decline, clinging to the old privileges in education in the hope of gaining advantage in influencing society or converting people. (In fact, I suspect church schools are counterproductive in that regard, but that’s another whole story).
There are, of course, many Anglican schools, mostly primaries, that genuinely serve local communities without discrimination. But with the expansion of Church of England secondary schools, there’s a parallel pressure from the church for more selection and discrimination, not less.
When our church secondary school was being established (without consultation with the local churches) I heard from the inside about some of the machinations that went on. The heads of the neighbouring schools (both non-Christians, but with a previously high regard for the church) were appalled at the ruthlessness with which the church authorities argued for as high a proportion as possible of church places, and for the less deprived primary schools to be their feeders.
What I and the neighbouring schools saw in all of this was a church school which didn’t want to serve the whole community, but does want to attract a high-achieving intake.. The very recent London School of Economics (LSE) report highlighted abuses of admissions procedures in faith schools. But you could stamp out all the abuses, and abide by every rule, and still the system of church reserved places ends up being a self-selection of the already privileged.
My experience, as I think Rabbi Jonathan Romain’s has been too, is that to question the values of faith schools from within a faith is to be met with incomprehension or fierce opposition. I think there may be a rather revealing element of overreaction here. You’ll have heard the invariable responses of the central bodies of the C of E to the regular reports and studies that draw attention to problems in admissions and diversity in faith schools.
The response (as to the recent LSE report) is always in the same mode: aggressively defensive. There’s never any acknowledgement of even a grain of truth, nor is there any attempt to hear the criticisms or enter into debate. Invariably these responses characterize the research as flawed and the researchers as biased, and answer it not with other research, but usually by making some other assertion. The fierceness of the response always makes me think that a psychologist would say that something odd is going on here. Either consciously or unconsciously, they seem to be rather fearfully aware that they stand on shaky ground in their assertions.
I continue to believe, from my own experience, that Christian schools with privileged and protected admission and employment policies not only damage and divide society, they also damage authentic Christian witness and principles, and ultimately are damaging to the church itself too.
If we are to have publicly funded faith schools, then they must serve the whole community. They mustn’t exist to prop up the faith community, nor to offer escape routes from a more diverse real world to those who already have all the advantages in life. Nor must they create division in society. They need, if they are to be true to Christianity, (or, if I can presume to say it, to Judaism, to Islam, to any of the great faiths), to serve the whole community in humility and mutual respect. That’s why I support Accord (http://www.accordcoalition.org.uk/ ), and urge the Liberal Democrats and other parties to support our aims.
See also: 'Why church schools can be less than Christian' - http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/8907 
© Jeremy Chadd is vicar of St Chad’s Church, Sunderland, in the Church of England Diocese of Durham. He is also Regional Tutor for Practical Theology on the North-East Oecumenical Course and one of a range of Christian and other faith backers of the Accord coalition.
See also on Ekklesia: ‘A Christian case for Accord’ - http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/7627 
More about Accord and faith schools: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/tags/6275