As parents around the country find out which primary schools their children will be attending from September on National Offer Day, some leading members of the Church of England are worried that their schools seem to be acting in ways that benefit the rich, harm the poor and encourage hypocrisy.
In a recent letter to The Guardian, the signatories - both clergy and laypeople – expressed concern that giving priority to the children of families who are committed Christians excludes the already disadvantaged from the benefits of attending a good school with a Christian ethos. It also allows some parents to gain admission by feigning religious commitment through temporary church attendance.
They call for reform of CofE school admissions policies, including an end to church attendance as a criterion and a move to “open” admissions. Their moral discomfort is understandable but the problem raises complex issues and the remedies they suggest may not work as intended.
What is the scale of the problem?
There are 16,788 primary and 3,329 secondary schools in England and 37% of all primaries and 19% of all secondaries are designated as having a religious character, the majority of them Christian.
Of the 4,394 CofE primaries only 2,159 – 13% of all primary schools – are free to set their own religious admissions arrangements. The remainder have their admissions set by the local authority. Of the secondary schools, 207, or 6.2%, are CofE and 181, just 5.4%, set their own admissions.
The Church of England’s official website denies that there is a problem in its admissions policy. It states that:
Church of England schools are inclusive … 15% of CofE secondary pupils are eligible for free school meals. This is in line with the national average for non CofE schools which is also 15%…
Using this global figure is disingenuous. Segregation is a local not a national phenomenon – it occurs between schools in an area where there is actual competition for pupils from a limited pool. On this measure, faith schools have consistently been shown to have more advantaged intakes than other types of school. This is also sufficient to explain the higher attainment of their pupils.
Faith school intake
The main criterion for entry to faith schools is evidence of religious commitment rather than proximity to the school. Therefore faith schools admit pupils from a larger area than their immediate neighbourhood. So, unlike the segregation in non-faith schools, the social background of their intake is not so heavily driven by residential segregation.
We need therefore to look for other multiple factors. One is that the social class of the churchgoing population in general – and that of the Church of England in particular – is predominantly from the wealthy and highly educated professional and managerial classes.
If this were the only factor, CofE schools’ advantaged intakes would be the innocent result of offering a service to Christian parents. But, in common with all other schools, faith schools feel the pressure of performance. There is historical evidence that suggests that they have been more likely than other types of school to respond by attempting to select more advantaged intakes.
In 2006, about 8% of faith schools (both Roman Catholic and CofE) asked for details that could facilitate social selection. Back then, their admission criteria more often omitted to prioritise looked-after children (now a legal requirement) or those with special educational needs. At the same time, they were much more likely than other schools to include potentially discriminatory criteria, such as contributions to school funds, to show commitment to the school.
Today, faith schools continue to have markedly more complex criteria than any other type of school and this relative complexity has been found to correlate with higher segregation. In addition, the criterion of religious commitment – which needs to be verified by a reference from a vicar – favours parents who have more time and resources to demonstrate activity in the community of the local church.
Impact of opening up to all
Doing away with church attendance as a criterion of religious commitment would solve the problem of parents’ temporary appearance at services, but would not make much difference to the problem of faith schools serving advantaged intakes. On the other hand, if by recommending “open admission arrangements” those calling for change hope to do away with any criteria relating to religion – such as membership of a church, being baptised, or having a religious faith – this would have a considerable effect.
In this case the schools would simply be offering all parents the choice to send their child to a school with a Christian ethos. The effect of such a step-change would depend on what replaced the faith criteria and also the admission arrangements of neighbouring schools.
If proximity to school became the main criterion, the intake of many faith schools would change (possibly dramatically) because their intakes do not currently reflect the social characteristics of their localities. This would be particularly true for primary schools, because attending the nearest school is more important for parents when their children are young.
Just as important for those Christians who are troubled by the current situation is the message that would be sent by opening up admission to all. It would renounce the theologically dubious practice of measuring degrees of religious commitment to determine which parents are more and less deserving of a place at a Christian school and it commits faith schools to avoid serving the advantaged better than the disadvantaged.
But it would inevitably mean that fewer parents with sincere religious belief would be able to access a school with a Christian ethos. This raises the much bigger question as to what role religious organisations should have in the education system.
Even if open admission to faith schools was introduced, there remain plenty of ways in which faith schools and parents could game the system. So long as the moral and political basis of education policy is parental choice, in a market-based education system held accountable by Ofsted for raw performance in standardised tests, the incentive for all schools to exclude the poorest pupils remains. Some faith and non-faith schools will then, as now, be unable to resist the temptation to select for their own advantage.