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Why has the Church got such a huge influence in our education system?

By Terry Sanderson

Our curiosity was aroused when we saw a headline in the Daily Telegraph reading: “Church schools under threat, says Bishop of Oxford”.

Of course, as so often with the Telegraph, the actual meat of the article did not support the headline. The Bishop of Oxford was simply panic-mongering in order to ensure that the privileges that the Church of England enjoys in education are retained and maybe even extended.

We had been previously impressed by the Rt Rev John Pritchard, the Bishop of Oxford and the Church of England’s education supremo, when he suggested earlier this year that the CofE should make more places available in its schools for non-Christians and non-believers.

He at once faced a barrage of criticism from those within the Church who know the value of “faith schools” for the propagation of religious commitment among children (although, admittedly, the job is getting harder for them).

But now Mr Pritchard has gone in the other direction and says in a report to the General Synod that the Church must “act now” to ensure that it loses nothing of its special treatment as a result of Mr Gove’s frenetic overhaul of the education system.

He said that the government’s changes are being made too rapidly and are “not the best way to build for the future”.

He ramped up the pressure concerning support for Church-run academies and the exclusion of RE from the English baccalaureate.

The Government responded by reminding him that religious education is still compulsory in all schools and there are no plans to change that.

Mr Pritchard was unimpressed and said in his report: “The changes brought in by the present Coalition government present significant challenges to the Church’s continued involvement in the public education system. The changed rationale and growth of academies requires action now to ensure the survival of our provision.”

He said there were “serial challenges” to the “national well-being” of religious education in non-faith schools. The exclusion of the subject from the English Baccalaureate had had an “immediate and depressing effect” on the GCSE choices pupils were making nationally, he said.

He said standards in RE were “not healthy” and teaching about Christianity was “generally not well done”. Even the Church of England’s own schools should not be “overly complacent” about the quality of their teaching of Christianity, he wrote.

Bishop Pritchard also said “hostility towards faith-based schools” had increased, with “renewed attacks” on the principle of reserving places for children who attend church.

The report points out that already, with at least 42 academies, the Church of England is at present the largest single provider of academy schools. But it says only “a very small number” have places which will be allocated on the basis of religious observance.

The bishop warned that there had been a danger that Church of England schools that became academies could “let the Church foundation drift until it had no meaning”.

Of course, for those of us who think that “faith schools” are hotbeds of shocking injustice and intolerable religious discrimination, this is all good news.

What Mr Pritchard has failed to acknowledge is that most children are not interested in religion and neither are their parents. We’ve rehearsed often enough in Newsline why parents want their children to get places in church schools. In many of them, the selection process ensures only ‘nice’ children get through. This has catastrophic consequences for some community schools that have no option but to pick up these problematic children that the Church likes to screen out.

We certainly hope that Bishop Pritchard’s fears are realised and that selection on religious grounds will eventually fade away. This will release many parents from a need to go to church when they don’t want to. It will also release children from the prospect of religious indoctrination.

Pritchard talks about the teaching of Christianity being “not well done”. My question is: why should it be done at all? Our schools are not there — or they shouldn’t be, anyway — for the use of churches and religions to pump their ideas into children’s heads from the ages of 5 until, in some cases, they are 18.

The Ebacc is about academic subjects — subjects that will benefit children later in life when they have to find a job. It is not about ‘religious education’ — a slippery subject that so easily morphs from learning about religions to learning to be religious.

It is becoming clear that the nation is growing tired of the Church having so much influence over their children’s education. Such heavy involvement isn’t necessary and it isn’t desirable and is largely unwanted.

If the Church seeks to run academies, let it do so on the same basis as anyone else does, following the same rules.

Cue shrieking fromLambethPalaceand the Diocese of Oxford.

See also:

Poll shows religious studies not being taught in many schools

Irish teachers call for an end to religious influence in schools

Irish law doesn’t permit non-religious schools