Interviews given by the Bishop of Oxford over the Easter period have highlighted the fact that there are 2 very different visions emerging for the mission and aims of Church of England Schools.
On one side of the debate, the historic approach currently adopted by the many Governing bodies – that Church Schools should prioritise providing education for Christians, preferably Anglicans. Those whose parents attend church are propelled up the admissions list, and the larger proportion of Christians associated with the school helps to maintain a distinctive Christian ethos.
On the other side of the debate, the line taken recently by the Bishop of Oxford, proposing a much more open approach to admissions, and calling for faith based admissions to be cut to a maximum of 10%.
The vision behind these proposals is that Church Schools should be part of the mission of the Church of England reaching out to all rather than providing a special service to the faithful few.
Having been in parish ministry for almost 20 years, I must admit that there have been times when I would be very relieved to forego the annual tide of letters and references requested in support of applications to Church Schools – often by people I had rarely, if ever seen in church.
But the future direction of Church Schools deserves a more objective analysis.
In defence of the status quo, are parents and governors anxious to see enough places maintained for ‘Christian families’ – i.e. people like them. They point out that church schools are permitted by law to set their own admission policy; that church schools provide financially towards capital projects, and that academic results are often higher than comparable schools in the same area.
Those who call for change point out that the education provided at church schools is still paid for by the state, so they should be open to all on a level playing field; they assert that the way in which church schools sometimes ‘cream off’ the best pupils makes it more difficult for other schools to get top results; they allege that non-church families can feel discriminated against or excluded from good schools on the basis of religion. As one comentator put it recently, "How would Anglicans feel if they could only receive treatment at 80% of NHS Hospitals?"
But what of the concerns of many church schools that the very ethos which makes the school so attractive would be somehow watered down or lost if admission policies were changed? If practising Christians were not given a priority & places were offered equally to all in an increasingly secular society, would the Christian ethos suffer?
The school which my 2 children attend in Dorset is a Church of England Middle School, providing 500 places to 9-13 year olds from a wide rural area.
Over the last 4 years, the governing body of St Mary’s Middle School in Puddletown has gone further than the Bishop of Oxford has suggested. It has removed all reference to faith from their admissions policy, not even reserving the 10% of places which he suggests. The admissions policy which it has adopted is now almost indistinguishable from the local authority schools in the area. Practising Christians are given no preference.
Yet at the same time, the Christian ethos has improved dramatically. In the Church (SIAS) inspection that follows Ofsted, the assessment has gone from barely ‘Satisfactory’ in 2007 to ‘Outstanding’ three years later.
To quote the inspector in last year's report, “St Mary’s has embraced its Christian character with enthusiasm and joy and firmly placed Christian principles at the heart of the school. The school is a community where faith and belief are a natural part of life and where children enjoy the opportunities to talk about these things freely.”
This has been made possible by a joint effort by governors, head teacher, senior management team and staff after having identified developing the Christian ethos of the school as one of the top priorities.
The RE and Collective Worship co-ordinator was given a place on the Senior Management Team. A chaplaincy team of local clergy and lay leaders was established to take responsibility for weekly assemblies and link to year groups. Most importantly, the concept of developing a spiritual journey for pupils during their 4 years at the school was established.
During their first term at St Mary’s, all year 5’s (age 9) are prepared to be admitted to Communion, and preparation for Confirmation is offered in their final year at school for those who feel ready to make this formal Christian commitment. In between, the pattern of collective worship and provision of RE aims to present faith in an active and dynamic way providing opportunities to engage in a wide variety of faiths with Christianity at the centre. Wherever possible enthusiastic members of churches and other faiths are used to express their faith in a passionate and open way.
Around 50% choose to be admitted to Communion and regular Eucharistic services are held for the whole school which many parents also attend. A few of these come to us from a background of involvement in their local church, but most do not. Engagement in the wider world is expressed in annual projects such as fundraising for Oxfam unwrapped. These are enthusiastically embraced by children and staff alike.
This co-ordinated approach has created an atmosphere in which "The culture of the school encourages students to develop their spirituality" and where "students respond to this with enthusiasm and confidence" (SIAS report 2010).
Neither have academic standards fallen. In common with other Middle Schools around Dorchester, almost all pupils leave with their attainment a whole year ahead of the expected level, and this has continued.
Of course St Mary's is not unique, and doubtless the same story could be told in many church schools up and down the country. But what this demonstrates is that it is clearly possible both to open up school admissions and to develop the school's Christian ethos for the good of all.
If church schools are to provide a truly Christian ethos, then that ethos must include following Jesus’ example of ministry of those outside the religious establishment. Our schools provide a unique opportunity to engage in the development of spirituality in each new generation. Parents of all kinds of faith backgrounds (and none) are making active choices to apply for places in church schools. If we choose to squeeze them out with admission policies which put them at a disadvantage, we shut a door which may never be re-opened in their lives.