On Monday in the House of Commons, Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, said that he was keen to work with John Pritchard, the Bishop of Oxford, on extending the role of the Church of England in schools. His words have been taken to mean that the Government will support the creation of a new generation of state-funded Anglican academies.
In theory, that should please anyone who is concerned about two recent social trends. The first has been a steady decline in the country’s position in international educational league tables. The second has been our drift during the same period towards an all-consuming secularity.
For all who favour high standards, and who also believe that moderate religious affiliation benefits children and those involved in their education, the Secretary of State’s support for the expansion of publicly funded Anglican schools can only seem a cause of celebration.
But I’m not so sure. There’s a risk that educational standards, and even Anglicanism itself, might be endangered by the expansion of church schools. My fear is that Anglican schools may be forced, for the sake of becoming more inclusive, to dilute their distinctively religious character, and even to turn away applicants from genuine Anglican backgrounds, to accommodate those who are not.
Last year, the Church put John Pritchard in charge of developing its policy on schooling. He soon disclosed – much to the horror of many Anglicans – that he favoured his Church’s schools reserving no more than 10 per cent of places for children from Anglican backgrounds, an unprecedented level of “inclusiveness”. The bishop justified this, saying, “Our commitment [is] to serve the whole community, including those of other faiths and no faith. We are not a club that exists only for its members.”
He must realise, however, that church schools will only continue to achieve good academic results, and hence remain popular, so long as they preserve enough of their religious character. It’s what drives their success.
The question that should be exercising Bishop Pritchard and Mr Gove in the coming months is whether all or any new Anglican schools should be encouraged, or made, as a condition of extra state funding, to become so socially inclusive that the vast majority of their pupils cease to be from Anglican or Christian backgrounds.
Would it be wise to have admissions policies at Church of England schools that force them to turn away applicants from Anglican or other Christian backgrounds to accommodate those who are not? Surely not. Charity begins at home, after all.
Opponents of faith schools often claim that these schools only achieve better academic results because skewed admissions policies enable them to cream off middle-class children, who are easier to educate. They also claim that savvy, well-off parents know that an educational premium is attached to their children when they’re being taught with children from similar backgrounds.
Such concentrations of middle-class children at faith schools are said to be unfair to children from poor backgrounds, because these disadvantaged children become concentrated in community schools, often adversely affecting the performance of each other.
In support of their claims, critics of faith schools cite dodgy statistics that seem to bear them out. One is that nearly two thirds of Church of England primary schools have fewer pupils on free school meals than is the average for non-religious schools in their neighbourhoods. The same applies to nearly half of the Church’s secondary schools.
But such charges against faith schools are wrong because these statistics are misleading. There is no guarantee that distributing middle-class children evenly across all schools would improve the academic performance of children from poorer backgrounds. More likely, it would so widely diffuse their presence in the classroom as to spoil any potentially beneficial effect from it. The appropriate solution to the over-concentration of children who are difficult to teach in some schools is not to dilute the ethos of faith schools. It is, rather, to continue what the present Government has already started: to attach a pupil premium in the form of extra funding to schools for every child they admit from a socially disadvantaged background.
More important, pupils of faith schools often perform better on average academically than their counterparts at community schools, even when their levels of social deprivation, as measured by eligibility for free school meals, are similar.
Several studies suggest that children at faith schools do better than children at more secular schools because of the religious outlooks they share with each other, their parents and teachers. If so, the Department for Education and the Church of England would do well to tread cautiously when expanding the number of Anglican schools. The price of expansion may be too high if, to accomplish it, they are forced to water down their distinctive religious ethos and character for the sake of government funding.
The Church of England should be the last body to need reminding that it was for the sake of a mere mess of pottage that Esau lost his birthright.