The Church of England’s new head of education, the Bishop of Oxford, Rt Rev John Pritchard, is the first high-profile Anglican to admit that Church schools get their league-topping results by using privileged admissions criteria to select the best pupils. Mr Pritchard has set the cat among the pigeons by telling the Times Education Supplement that he would like to open up church schools to more non-Anglicans – reserving only 10 per cent of places for the children of church-goers. By doing so, he said “We may not get the startling results that some church schools do because of getting some very able children, but we will make a difference to people’s lives.”
Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, said: “The Church has repeatedly denied that the strict selection criteria that are applied in some schools are the reason they perform so well. We are told that it is because of the ‘Christian ethos’. Now the cat is out of the bag and the Bishop of Oxford lets us know that the Church is fully aware of why their schools perform so well.” Mr Sanderson said: “It is astonishing that we are even having this discussion or that this is an issue at all. It is scandalous that state schools, paid for by the taxpayer, can refuse to admit children on the grounds of their parents’ religion or purported religion. In no other area would this kind of blatant religious discrimination be permitted.” Mr Sanderson did concede that it was a step in the right direction, but he expressed doubt on whether any dramatic changes would be made in the near future, if at all. He said that voluntary aided schools control their own admissions policies and the church would not be able to force them to comply. “Parents who access these schools won’t be too thrilled to see them opened up to the community at large,” he said. “We’ve all heard of pushy, non-religious parents suddenly becoming regular church-goers in order to get a letter from the vicar that is the open sesame to the local church school. The Church of England’s main focus these days is education, and if they give up their admissions privileges, their schools will become just like all the other schools in this country, and the resources that they hog to themselves will have to be more equally shared out.”
Mr Pritchard told the TES: “I’m really committed to our schools being as open as they can be. Every school should have a policy that has a proportion of places for church youngsters… what I would be saying is that number ought to be minimised because our primary function and our privilege is to serve the wider community. Ultimately, I hope we can get the number of reserved places down to 10 per cent.”
Half of the 4,800 Church of England schools are voluntary aided, meaning they control their own admissions policies. He said that schools should not “collect nice Christians into safe places” but should serve the wider community. The Bishop’s comments come ahead of the publication of new guidelines on admissions due in the summer. The Bishop’s proposals are likely to face stiff opposition from others involved in education within the Church. Revd Clive Sedgewick, director of education for the dioceses of Bradford and Ripon & Leeds said there would be resistance from some parents who have come to regard Church schools as almost like a private education without the fees.
In an editorial in the TES, Gerard Kelly said: “The vast majority of faith school funding is provided by taxpayers, who come in two varieties – the religious and the non-religious. Whatever the precise proportions, it is generally accepted that services paid for by taxpayers should be available to all. Except when it comes to faith schools. Here, believing taxpayers often take precedence over non-believing ones. One hundred per cent discrimination for the remarkably cheap price of 10 per cent contribution to building costs. This is patently unjust. Church leaders may retort that non-believing taxpayers have access to 80 per cent of schools that are non-faith. But that isn’t the point. Can you imagine a non-faith school refusing to admit a church-going pupil because there was a school for her sort locally? The Bishop has taken a principled stand. But it is time the state was equally brave and told faith schools to open their doors.”
British Humanist Association’s Chief Executive Andrew Copson stated: “Any reduction in discrimination has to be welcomed but it remains outrageous that 100% publicly funded schools are permitted to discriminate against children and parents on grounds of religion at all. We would encourage all people within the Church of England who believe in social justice, equality and fair access to public services to seek a total end to discrimination in their schools, on other religious groups to do the same, and on the government to end its support of religiously selective and segregated education at the public expense.”