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Case study: St Aidan's C of E school

Let's dispel a few myths and half-truths first. The UK is not the only place that integrates faith schools into its state education system. True, the United States does not, but that is hardly the most potent argument for a wholly secular school system. Several European countries whose education systems are lauded for their excellence have had little difficulty involving the religious authorities in their network of schools, Germany foremost among them.

Nor are all faith schools in the leafy suburbs - nor are they all oversubscribed. In our part of Yorkshire, the faith schools in Leeds, Bradford, Wakefield and Hull are in areas that face some of the toughest socio-economic challenges in the land. New faith schools in Barnsley and the north-east can hardly be described as catering for middle-class havens. The glib assumption that faith schools have more to do with social selection than religion is based on prejudice rather than fact. Many are in difficult areas, having been founded to educate the poor long before the state woke up to its responsibilities.

Then there is the apprehension many teachers feel about what faith schools require of them. Whisper it quietly, but the contracts are, to all intents and purposes, the same: no teacher can be forced to take RE lessons or even attend assembly, and private lives are exactly that.

Working in a faith school now presents greater challenges than seeing off the likes of Polly Toynbee and the National Union of Teachers. For a start, religion has had a justifiably terrible press. Thankfully, at St Aidan's I spend my working days in partnership with my Roman Catholic colleague down the road at St John Fisher RC high school.

Our associated sixth form - now 30 years old - has 840 students and is probably the largest school-based sixth form in the land. Yet even here, we wonder if some see our ecumenical miracle as second best to being separate. A 500-year-old dispute about the nature of the Eucharist overshadows our relationship. Not one of the 840 students would have a clue, nor would they care.

The break-up of the ecumenical St Augustine's in Oxford was hopelessly backward-looking. The events at Holy Cross in Belfast were a disgrace. Mullahs encourage young men towards martyrdom; George Bush proclaims God is on our side. There are priests with paedophile CVs, and church attendance is in freefall - not, perhaps, the most positive climate in which to promote the value of a religious ethos.

Less of a challenge, but equally daunting for a novice faith-school head, are the Genesis, genes and gremlins letters. Parents who believe the universe was created in six days certainly do not wish Jenny to live with Eric and Martin; nor do they much care for Harry Potter. I tend to thank them for their interest in their children's education, and make great play of our decision to ban Halloween activity. I hate "trick or treat" anyway.

Faith schools now have an opportunity they have not had in 100 years. But we must not be side-tracked by the kind of nonsense we have heard from Canon Slade in Bolton and from Emmanuel CTC in Gateshead. St Aidan's does not exist for the nurture of the children of Christians; that is the job of their particular faith community. We are there to educate. No faith school should ever lose sight of the fact that it is funded by the taxpayer.

St Aidan's, in genteel, prosperous Harrogate, probably conforms to what many critics would expect of a church school: heavily oversubscribed with a largely middle-class intake and riding high in the league tables. But we are not a pseudo-grammar school. There are no blazers, no gowns and no Latin mottos. We have opened the doors to children of other faiths and ensured we have the norm for north Yorkshire in respect of statements of special educational need. We are conscious that "of those to whom much is given, of them much shall be required". We are also conscious that we could easily get up people's noses. So it is a priority to establish and maintain good working relationships with other schools in the town.We already do our admissions through the LEA structure and no parents are interviewed.

I have loved working in a church school. Recent government plans for expansion of faith schools have drawn attention to the serious shortage of senior staff who wish to do the same. Scan the jobs pages in The TES for headteacher vacancies and you will see that the road to Rome, or to Canterbury, is the easy way to a headship. Christian humility is thus an essential virtue.

Dennis Richards Dennis Richards has been head of St Aidan's C of E high school, Harrogate, for 14 years

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