American readers might be slightly surprised to find that church schools (nowadays often called faith schools so as not to discriminate against non-Christian religions) should be a big issue in the UK. The argument has historical roots. Once upon a time, most free schools in the country were run by the Church of England. From the mid-nineteenth century, the Catholic Church also began to set up schools, which tended, because of demographics, to be in quite poor areas. In the 1940s, schools were nationalised and the state started to pay for most of their upkeep. Despite increasing levels of regulation, many church schools have retained some independence, especially over admissions and ‘ethos’.
The arguments for church schools are two-fold. Firstly, people have a right to have their children brought up within their own tradition. Secondly, church schools tend to be better than non-church schools. The reasons for the later fact are hotly debated. Some claim that it is purely due to the middle classes packing church schools while leaving secular schools to deal with the socially disadvantaged. Others claim it is due to the culture of discipline and hard work at church schools which leads to their success. I would think that both factors contribute but that it is the strong ethos that leads to middle class parents being attracted to the school in the first place, thus further improving its image and results.
The propensity to blame the middle classes for clogging up the best schools has even infected the Conservative Party. Their schools spokesman, Michael Gove (him again), recently referred to the sharp elbows of the middle classes, presumably forcing their way past the worthy poor to bag all the desks at the local school. The Conservative leader, David Cameron also got himself into a muddle on the Church Schools issue. In a recent Times interview he said he would not blame parents trying to do the best for their children. This was interpreted as condoning atheists who pretend to a Christian faith so as to get their kids into a church school. Journalists often peddle the idea that non-believers turn up at church each Sunday just to improve their chances of getting their children into the attached school. I’ve always found the image of worthy Dawkinistas laying aside their copies of The God Delusion to march off to Communion on Sunday rather ridiculous. What probably does happen is people who never really bothered with religion one way or the other suddenly find they have an urge to investigate it if the local church school is any good. I rather suspect that David Cameron himself falls into this category.
There is no doubt that the stakes for us middle class parents are frighteningly high. State schools are free but vary between excellent and utterly dire. No self-respecting parent will accept a poor school for their offspring but the allocation of places to the best state schools is a lottery, increasingly quite literally so. The alternative private schools start at around £8,000 a year. Many middle class parents, unsurprisingly, decide that kind of money is worth a Mass.
The argument against church schools is harder to pin down because it is only usually made by ranters like Polly Toynbee. The traditional objection is that church schools encourage religious segregation although no one seems to provide any evidence for this beyond insisting that it is ‘obvious’. Some of it is ideological egalitarianism which would rather all schools were poor than some were better than others. The fact that church schools do generally appear to be better than secular schools is clearly a red rag to the bulls who refuse to see any good in religion. Perhaps they are also worried that parents who are attending church to ease access to a school might fall under religion’s wicked spell as well. The arguments have now been confused by concern from all sides about Muslim state schools (of which there are so far only one or two). Some on the left would rather close down all church schools than admit to discriminating against Islam. If Islamic schools funded by the taxpayer do take off, we can expect that this argument will get a lot louder.
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