Monday, 25 April 2011

School Admissions: Tears and Fears

Why, Oh Why?” whines the Mail about school admissions. Stephen Glover excoriates opening faith schools to all and sundry as “death wish.” However our C of E schools’ title deeds say that “all and sundry” is exactly whom they were founded for — like the Kingdom of Heaven, the way Jesus taught it.

The Church is there to spread the teaching of Jesus, not sectarianism and bigotry. We are in the business of growing faith, not paranoia about “secularism.” We are non-sectarian whenever possible, not because we have lost our nerve, or as a marketing gimmick, but because Jesus taught a bigger conception of God and humanity than any sect can take in. He addressed everyone, not just the religious, and his harshest words were for those who ghettoised faith.

Bishop John’s TES interview (as Chair of the National Society) suggested that the standard aim of Church School admissions ought to be 10% of places for Churchgoers, the rest for fringe and everybody. Interestingly, looking around, as Chairof our Dicoesan Board of Education, at our 289 schools, the vast majority of them are primaries, and the proportion he’s talking about is actually what usually happens. It doesn’t kill anyone off. Our schools face major challenges, but they are generally doing their job, serving the communities they were founded to serve incredibly well.

Different contexts need appropriate policies, though. In some places there is a desperate shortage of Church School secondary places. It takes me back to my time as admissions governor for Ranelagh, a pioneering and excellent Comprehensive school in Bracknell.

If the frequently repeated figures for churchgoing in England reflected reality in any simple way, we would have had no admissions problem. Given the size of the local population of parents of 11 year olds, the school would only need about 30 places a year for them, leaving another 94 for fringe and non Church families.

In fact the assumption of a post-Christian secularised population was, quite honestly, complete tosh in our area. Our school used to receive at least 120 fully documented applications every year from regular Churchgoing families, and a good 50 others from families with a strong claim to places. That’s the simple fact. Not 30. 179.

One way to address the real problem would have been to increase the number of places available in Church secondaries in the area to allow for a more balanced intake, with a larger number of places for fringe and outside families. Sadly it was not in our power, as governors, to build a bunch of new secondaries at 30 million a pop; nor to expand numbers in a school on a cramped urban site. So we soldiered on, trying to be as fair as we could in applying our published admissions policy. And in the meanwhile there was a school to run.

I expect Bishop John meant exactly what he said. He wasn’t laying down some new iron law about admissions, which the National Society couldn’t anyway. He was talking about the good things Church schools have being made available to as many people who want them as possible; which is something, surely, we would all wish for, although the way to achieve it will be more obscure and trixical in some local contexts.

Finally, I was interested to meet last week a friend and colleague just back from the States who pointed out that inEngland there is a lot of twitchiness about Faith and politics, and in the States about Faith and Public Schools (in the American sense of the term). Is it, he wondered, the same cultural twitchiness? I wonder...


Emma Major said...

Have to say this 10% has worried me a bit since I hope my now year1 daughter will go to CofE secondary school where the ethos is more as I'd like. Our options are ranelagh (10miles away) or piggot (5 miles away) both massively over subscribed.

So yes, as an active member of CofE I have concerns about her being excluded. It's been nice to read your experiences, relieved some worry.

Anyway, as ever, I'm trusting in God, especially since we've got five years to go :)

Anonymous said...

The subject of faith schools is one that causes controversy, whenever it is raised. I attended faith schools of the RC flavour in East London, and received a good education. This was in the fifties and sixties.

We were surrounded by schools of other faiths and none, all of whom appeared to do equally well. There was no competition for places in those days. You normally went to the nearest school to home of your faith denomination. I am unsure what that says about the current system, where schools seem encouraged to compete with each other for exam results, to attract more funding. It seems a vicious circle and to be self defeating.

Faith schools have a unique character, but they need to have open admission policies, but to still provide their unique perspective on faith - those of other denominations need not participate in formal religious education but should be observers at assemblies.

The was recently a great local controversy in Ealing when the RC diocese of Westminster proposed changing admission criteria, which would make several schools more exclusive, rather than inclusive. This offended some parents groups who took it to court. They lost because the court supported the Education authority and school governers. In this case, it seems that 'apartheid' education is legal?

I can understand the secularist view that faith schools operate in exclusion policy - due to the lack of transparency. I sat on Appeals Panels for a number of years and could see this all coming.

RTPeat said...

I have to say when +John appeared on Friday the first place I thought of was Ranelagh having been Churchwarden to Rev'd Richard when he was doing the admissions governor role. The situation there shows up a clear desire by Christian parents like Emma above to get their parents into a Christian school (incidentally comparing Ranelagh and Piggott is an interesting exercise as they have rather different ways of being Church schools - Piggott has a primarily local catchment taking those with any faith or none whereas Ranelagh takes pupils from across Sonning and Bracknell deaneries - including many from Wargrave and Twyford) and indeed some of the most difficult situations to deal with were always the long standing church members whose children didn't get into Ranelagh whereas other people who they regarded as only attending church to get their children into Ranelagh did because they'd "played the system".

It also highlights an interesting personal quandary because in principle I agree with +John that Church schools should primarily be about outreach, but given the latest Wokingham schools admissions plan which penalises anyone like us out in the villages and leaves us with a lucky dip of the places that are left, knowing that Lucy and Sam will be able to get into a good school like Ranelagh by virtue of us being churchgoers leaves us a lot less concerned.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Where there aren't enough places, admissions are genuinely a very challenging place for the rubber to hit the road. Doing the admissions job I learnt to respect the vast, vast majority of parents' integrity very highly, including those who don't go to Church as much as they might — there's a powerful instinct in all of us to want something better for our children than ourselves (like giving your children piano lessons even though you don't yourself play much). I long for the day we no longer have faiing schools as we do now, and parents face less agonizing choices about their children. In the meanwhile we all just have to do the best we can, according to our values.

Benny Hazlehurst said...

Thanks for this posting, and for responding to the media hype that followed the Bishop of Oxford's interviews.

Much as I understand the anxieties of Christian parents about places for thier children (being one myself) I don't think that leveling up admission policies can be depicted as 'excluding' church families. We would still have the same opportunity as 'non-church' families.

More importantly, I don't beleive that changing the policies will result in destroying the Christian ethos of schools. The ethos should be a dynamic process resulting from way the school views and owns its mission, not arising from a reliance on a selective intake.

I have just submitted an article on this to the CT and am wating to hear if the want to take it up. If they don't, I will post it to my blog later this week.
God Bless, Benny

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks, Benny. I hope the non appearance of article on your blog means good news from the CT. Ironically, the position +John describes, of 10% f parents being very active practising Anglicans is probably fairly close, as a matter of fact, to what we have in our 290 schools. They are living proof that your analysis of the ethos issue is basically right!

Secondary admissions raise very different issues from Primary because of the dramatic shortage of Church secondary places in some parts of our diocese.

Benny Hazlehurst said...

Sadly, the CT has not accepted the article so I have posted it on my blog this evening. Apparantly they want to 'keep their powder dry'(whatever that means!)

Let me know your thoughts ...

Anonymous said...

VG here. You ask if the [faith and sensu Americana public schools] twitchiness is the same as that of [faith and politics] here, and my answer would be "yes indeed".

For those of us who are Christian but wanting to live in the Ephesians 2 world, the Christian Radical Right's co-opting of the Christian "brand", and its subsequent enormous financial and polling support of policies in schools and statehouses which are anti-intellectual, anti-science, anti-female, anti-poor, anti-minority, and which seek to create ever-increasing marginalities is a terrible challenge. I am a dual national; I pay US taxes and have a vote. I may yet move back into that society.

Here in the UK, there is a very clear linkage between policies and even the language used by Conservative politicians and the radical Christian Right. Nadine Dorries is a case in point; but we heard Ken Clarke using the term "forcible rape, the commonly-understood meaning of rape" on the air earlier this week, which is the language of the sponsors, God help us all, of HR 3 in the US, which is also called the Rapist's Protection Bill for its attempt to redefine rape to exclude incest, date rape, and statutory rape which not only protects children but the disabled. Anne Atkins, the darling pop theologian of the Conservative Party, was on R4 two mornings ago telling rape victims to contrast rape with "joyful submission". I was, literally, sick; at least I made it to the WC on time. She hasn't read Andrea Dworkin's Hating Women, for a start, but a mindset which starts from a position of a woman's "joyful submission" to a male head of household is not going to begin to understand rape, at all. I don't want her views informing the criminal law on sexual assault: she's anathema to those of us with some experience of the issues.

Conservatives on both sides of the pond use Christianity as an excuse to demean both women and men qua their genders but also to demean all of us as human beings. It's insidious, but it's there. C of E schools are getting tarred with a brush made and tainted in the USA because Conservatives here see the success of Conservatives in the US and are keen to git themselves some of that too.

If you think Jeremy Hunt's continual attempts to let Rupert Murdoch's News International dominate the UK's media channels are unrelated to all this, think again. I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but I think I have a fairly unidealistic view of the Special Relationship.

Lesley said...

Dear Alan,

Thanks for including me on your blog roll. As you know I've thrown my toys out the pram with Blogger and gone across to WordPress - would you be willing to change the link? My new blog is at

Thanks :)

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Have done, Lesley. Interestingly enough, the Blogger widget played up the first time I tried to change it, so I know how you feel. Teetering on the edge of WordPress myself, feeling a bit mean for not coughing u a sub. I think it does handle comments better, and would like a slicker loading experience. On the other hand the devil I know hasn't been as nasty t me as it has to you just recently, apart from that silly couple of days the whole thing was all over the place!

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