Church expansionism into education must be challenged

Editorial by Keith Porteous Wood, NSS Executive Director

The Archbishop of Canterbury chose the Times Educational Supplement, required reading for opinion formers in education, to announce that he “wants the church to dominate secondary provision”. The article was headed “C of E vows to be the biggest and the best”. His aspirations were set out: “We are looking at the middle-term future, where the Church of England will be quite conceivably the largest sponsor and provider of secondary education in this country.

“[T]he Church of England will be quite conceivably the largest sponsor and provider of secondary education in this country, which is a rather startling and breathtaking proposal”

- Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury

The Church of England runs a quarter of primary schools compared with 6% of secondary schools and has announced it wishes to equalise this imbalance. Needless to say, it is not advocating the scaling down of its near monopoly in many areas of primary education, but is pushing for an expansion of secondary schools. (Catholic schools comprise around 10% of both primary and secondary schools.)

His Grace had the grace to admit this is a “rather startling and breathtaking proposal”. Indeed, let’s examine its cogency, in the light of the middle term projections for his own organisation by Christian Research – not the NSS. Normal Sunday attendance in Britain1990–2050 is projected to drop progressively from 1.4 million to less than 0.1million. The proportion of even these rapidly diminishing numbers of churchgoers that are teenagers and younger children drops from 24% in 2000 to 1% in 2050. How much less suitable could the Church be to lead our schools?

And turning to the complete age spectrum, the average age of churchgoers is projected to rise from 40 years old in 1990 to 67 in 2050. By 2050 churchgoers will almost entirely be pensioners and the Church will be bankrupt after being unable to function as anything like a nationally representative organisation for some decades. This, we repeat, is the organisation aspiring to be the largest sponsor and provider of secondary education in the country.

How has the Church got into this seemingly unassailable position? Partly because of several decades of Prime Ministers who have thought religion A Good Thing and have moved the goalposts to help religious schools. This has often been to the detriment of community schools, of the consistently growing proportion of non-religious or of those who do not think we should have religious schools. On funding, for example, the proportion of costs borne by religious schools controlled by religious bodies has steadily dropped from 1944 levels of 50% of capital and some revenue costs to today’s levels of an occasional 10% of capital and no revenue costs at all. Church representatives (including Roman Catholics) are given voting seats as of right – echoing bishops in the House of Lords – on LEAs sitting beside elected representatives overseeing local authority schools, the majority of which are community schools. This also gives the churches advance information and access denied to others apart from elected representatives. The law was changed in 1998 to legally classify religious schools (including some whose religious identity had been entirely lost or forgotten) and give them privileges to discriminate in employment and crucially also admissions, to the potential detriment of community schools.

This is the big lie which successive governments seem unwilling or unable to contemplate: many, but by no means all, church schools are popular because of the privileged entry criteria they alone are permitted to operate. This enables religious schools to cherry-pick pupils, or probably even more importantly to avoid disruptive, or difficult to teach pupils as research shows. Also, the proportion of “free school meal” pupils in Anglican and Catholic schools is significantly lower than in community schools. This has led successive Secretaries of State to assume as David Blunkett expressed explicitly in 2003, that he wanted to “bottle” faith schools’ “ethos and success”. What would in fact be in that bottle is “privileged selection”, and perhaps also aspirant parents and class. Increasing the proportion of religious schools does not increase the supply of the privileged groups, but it will still further ratchet up the relative disadvantage, penalising community schools. This is somewhat ironic, given the churches’ claims to help the poor and disadvantaged.

Some of the greatest threats to secular education arise less directly from government policy. The Conservatives are carrying forward with much more energy the policy initiated by Labour to weaken and eventually phase out Local Education Authorities (LEAs). The new Government model for schools is academies, which are self-governing and do not report to LEAs but individually to the Department for Education. It has never been satisfactorily explained how this non-hierarchical structure can better serve the nation or adequately control expenditure of such vast sums of public money by all these academies. Also, the coordination and assistance from those in LEAs with knowledge of local circumstances will be lost.

It is no surprise that the Church is already positioning itself to replace the role of local authorities – and not just for religious schools but for community schools too. Dr Williams thinks it would be a “pity” if schools had to do everything on their own. He adds: “They need a sense that they have people to turn to in (moments of) crisis or pressure, a sense that they don’t carry the entire burden of an educational philosophy or vision, that they can rely on others singing from the same hymn sheet.” This confirms concerns we have already expressed publicly that the Church will be pushing community schools to emulate religious schools.

The TES reported our reaction prominently last week:

“It was wrong to give the CofE a greater role in running schools at the same time as church attendances were plummeting”, “…The CofE will expand its influence in our education system as much as the Government will allow, and they will allow a great deal”, “... But with church attendances in freefall, parents are being forced into enduring unwelcome religiosity in schools. The Government must address its failure to accommodate the growing proportion of non-religious parents.”

See also:

Community school enters into partnership with Church