More Church Schools – Beware the state’s enthusiasm
Times Educational Supplement
June 8th 2001
On December 14th 2000, The Times reported a call for the establishment of another one hundred Church of England secondary schools, “voluntary-aided” schools which are largely funded or “maintained” by the state. The call follows a concern that many children who attend C of E primary schools cannot be found places in Church secondary schools. The idea is favoured by the Church, which wishes to extend its educational work, and the government which sees that church schools are more popular and successful, generally speaking.
For eight years I taught in a Roman Catholic secondary school and this was followed by seven years as deputy head and three years as head of C of E secondary schools. I was a determined advocate of church schools. Now, however, I find myself wary of this sudden enthusiasm for church schools, especially this government’s sudden enthusiasm.
The virtues of church schools have long been recognised by parents whose antics when trying to secure places for their children sometimes beggar belief. This is not a recent phenomena; in the late fifties a friend at scouts informed me that he would be attending our local church for the next year solely in order to ensure that he gained a place at a nearby, popular Church of England secondary modern school. Many people, including politicians, see this enthusiasm for church schools as related to enthusiasm for educational virtue –an earnest striving for the highest possible standards, a wide range of achievement and high league table scores. People who work in these schools, who know the parents and their children, will have a more realistic view of things. They will know that, where there are academically selective schools, where there are independent schools with assisted places or scholarships, parents’ views of a church school’s virtues will be tempered by the attractions of a school where higher standards seem a more likely outcome for its pupils. The unvarnished truth of the matter is that many parents, church-goers and non-church-goers alike, are rightly concerned that their children should attend the best possible school. For church families and non-church families alike, there is a concern that their children should not attend schools where there is not universal support for the school on the part of parents or where a child’s fellow pupils will undermine their values and thwart their desire that their child should be taught well. Where a church school is the best available, then it will be popular not, in many cases, because it is a church school, but because it commands the support of a large majority of its parents.
This truth is being ignored.
Now the government seems to have discovered the virtues of church schools. There is no suggestion that the Church should step in to help provide urgently needed secondary school places; there is a surplus of 11%. The government’s plans involve the Church of England, and other voluntary bodies and commercial organisations, taking over existing schools. Church schools are successful so there are to be more so-called church schools. Government thinking would seem to suggest that any school can be a success so long as it is called a church school. This is what the government wants to do with “failing” schools – to re-label them as church schools to boost their popularity and then trumpet the success of their policies. We should be wary. We must consider that it is far more likely to be the desperation about the serious failings of state schools that is encouraging government, keen to show that it is in control, to champion the cause of church schools.
My concern is that the distinctive nature of Church schools is threatened because they are being used to promote the interests of the party of government, rather than the interests of the Church of England or of the children who attend its schools. For years, those of us who ran Church schools found at best an antipathy towards us, and sometimes outright hostility, especially from local authorities which seemed to resent having to support schools over which they had less control and whose sense of purpose they opposed. The school which I ran was established despite great antipathy from the local authority which was obliged to maintain it. Central government provided capital funding for such schools and this was routed via local authorities. It was often hard to come by and fellow heads of church schools would complain that their local authorities resented passing on money to voluntary schools which would shine in comparison with “ordinary” maintained or state schools.
When the legislative framework for voluntary-aided schools was built into the 1944 Education Act by Rab Butler, it was achieved following protracted discussions with the churches and produced a settlement which worked well for many years. Like their partners, the county schools – ordinary state schools which were also maintained by local education authorities – church schools were then not subject to anything like the controls which have been imposed since the 1980 Education Act. Church schools appointed staff and admitted pupils in much the same way that independent schools do. The controlling interest in such schools lay with a trust or trustee of some sort. This too served to distance them from “state” or maintained, local authority schools.
Nowadays, for Church and other voluntary schools, the appointment of staff has come under greater scrutiny. Intervention by local education authorities has grown enormously over the years, the curriculum and the assessment and inspection of children’s progress is unbelievably heavy-handed and admissions have become a legal and organisational nightmare as parents, desperate in some areas, seek scarce places for their children in schools which they trust.
This trust is crucial. It is the school which these parents trust, not the government, not the local education authority, nor any commercial organisation that is given anything more than a subsidiary interest in the school. Parents know that a good school concerns itself with those for whom it has a clear and direct responsibility and concerning whom it has adequate and clear powers. Parents know that these other bodies have wider agenda and short-term interests, whether they be electoral or financial. This truth has been known for generations in the independent sector whose schools attract envy and imitation. Only 7% of the nation’s children attend such schools, but 50% of parents would like to be able to use them.
At the present the Church of England is in danger of entangling itself in an undignified cosmetic exercise. Its existing secondary schools cannot be sure of being led by committed Anglicans; in some areas getting staff at all is difficult enough without the luxury of appointing practising Christians – something about which our Roman Catholic friends are, rightly, much more determined. Lastly, in some areas at least, they provide for children of other denominations and faiths, as well as children whose families have none. In some cases there is little respect or concern for the church and what it stands for.
Let there be no doubt in anybody’s mind about this. There are already in church schools children whose parents have nothing to do with any church. I have known of some parents who tried to coerce or intimidate clergy in order to obtain supportive references for their children. In three church schools I have encountered parents who have turned aggressively against the school when their children’s attitudes or behaviour in school have become intolerable and undermined the very institution which they wanted their children to attend. These parents were not prepared to play a responsible role in the rearing of their children and, moreover, they were quite prepared to frustrate the wishes of other responsible parents. They simply wanted something “better” than the local comp. Without greater independence, church schools have often to suffer abuse of this sort.
Why should the Church stretch further its precious resources, political, human and material, to assist politicians in their search for quick fixes? Why should the Church seek to extend its mission when to do so might well render it little more than an instrument, not of state, but of the party of government, and in circumstances where it will not have the independence necessary to be true to itself? Why “cosy up” to the current crop of politicians who may well be out of office before any deal can be properly and securely implemented; just as the Conservatives’ system of grant-maintained schools has been dismantled, so is Old Labour’s cherished aim of a completely comprehensive system now staggering towards extinction.
Does the church not recognise its strong hand? Does it not want the best for its schools? Why does it not demand things of government? Why does it not show the sort of lead in education that it does as a well-respected voluntary body in social care, where clergy and their families are often the only capable professionals living in and with the communities that other agencies have abandoned? Why does it not use this moral high ground to demand for itself, and any responsibly run schools that can command parental support, independence sufficient to ensure appropriate staffing, the admission of children whose families are genuinely supportive of the school, the provision of the best possible range of curricular and extra-curricular activity and complete and independent funding? Why does it not say to parents, you trust us sufficiently to choose us positively; you must back us against politicians who make it difficult for us to educate your children in the way that you wish.
My faith in church schools continues; there are many good schools to justify this faith. I do believe however that the years of struggling, along with all state-maintained schools, against political initiatives, should be seen for what they were. The Church should stir itself politically and morally to seek for its existing schools and pupils the independence that would safeguard its present valuable commitment to education. It must demand that the trustees of its schools receive direct and complete funding from the government, and control of admissions, staffing and the curriculum. Should they continue to be as popular and oversubscribed as they now are, there would be a sound basis for expanding their numbers or the number of similarly constituted schools. Without this kind of independence, politicians with other priorities will be able simply to sweep aside the fruits of a temporary enthusiasm for church schools at any time. However, bolstered with appropriate, robust independence the Church can ensure that any expansion of its important, broader mission is sustainable and worthwhile.