That church schools did significantly better than county schools in the recent primary league tables raises almost as many questions as it resolves. In England 37 per cent of the 14,488 primary schools with Year 6 pupils are either voluntary aided or controlled: of these, 25 per cent are affiliated to the Church of England and 10 per cent to the Catholic Church, with a handful to the Jewish, Methodist and other religions. But in the performance tables published in March, 59 out of the top 100 schools had a denominational affiliation. Diocesan adminstrators and headteachers, with a touch of embarrassment as well as pride, have spent the last month trying to work out just why some of their schools are proving so successful.
The conviction that church schools are unusually successful is not new. Inspectors from the Office for Standards in Education have remarked on the positive ethos of church schools which tends to give them an edge when judgments are made on social, moral and spiritual education. But this is not what the national curriculum tests judge. In fact, as HM Chief Inspector has noted, the results are occasionally in sharp contrast to the academic judgements of the inspectors.
So what is going right in church schools? The cynical view is that they are disproportionately situated in "leafy" areas. Or, where they are not, they become covertly selective. Either way, they avoid admitting children with the full range of inner-city problems that county schools are obliged to accept and which tend to depress their results.
There are elements of truth in these arguments. The 15 schools that achieved the "perfect" national tests score by getting all their 11-year-olds to level 4 in maths, English and science, seven of them church schools, are all situated in rural or relatively affluent urban areas. They may have the full range of ability but they are by no means overwhelmed by deprivation.
But nor are most of them selective. As Daphne Griffiths of the Church of England Board for Education says, many schools are in villages, others serve multi-cultural city communities and welcome children of other faiths. They aim to be, and generally are, community schools, although in some cases the community is a religious rather than a geographical one and in some parts of the country that may give the intake a middle class bias. Entrance criteria are set by each governing body, and the Church of England nationally is uneasy when its schools move away from what it sees as its ideal of providing neighbourhood education.
"We get very unhappy when a child's belief is taken into account. We feel this is inappropriate under a certain age. Most of our schools were established to provide education for, as they put it in the nineteenth century, "the poor and labouring classes" and we prefer local schools to take local children regardless of other criteria." In many areas of the country church schools use exactly the same entrance criteria as local authority schools. Only if there are spare places available will church membership come into play.
"I can only recall half a dozen families getting places on the basis of church membership last year," says Cynthia Wake of theDiocese of Norwich where a majority of village schools are C of E. There are, Daphne Griffiths admits, a few affluent suburban areas where parents compete fiercely for church school places, sometimes by claiming a religious affiliation which is not completely heartfelt. Such schools will attract a disproportionately middle class clientele, but the Church of England is adamant that they are a tiny minority.
Roman Catholic schools are more exclusive in their faith requirements, invariably admitting children of Catholic families first, but firmly set against any other form of selection. The community, for school purposes, is firstly the parish or parishes they serve, then Catholic families from further afield. Where a school is oversubscribed - there is a shortage of places in north London, for instance - the heart-searching begins. Regular attendance at mass and the support of the parish priest may then become an issue. But in ostensibly affluent areas the Roman Catholic affiliation may actually guarantee a wide rather than a narrow social mix.
St. Joseph's RC primary school in Maida Vale is oversubscribed and did very well in the national tests, but its parish contains a mix of families, including a significant proportion for whom English is a second language and a number from relatively deprived backgrounds.
Church of England administrators, searching for reasons why their schools have done so well, wonder whether school size has anything to do with it. The church has a disproportionate number of schools with fewer than 100 pupils and the majority of those with fewer than 50 on roll. Cynthia Wake of the Diocese of Norwich is convinced that this is a benefit for young children "They get individual attention and lots of it," she says. "The teachers get to know the children really well and, in mixed age classes, the older children are encouraged to help the younger children. Of course, this demands teachers of high quality and a lot of support from the LEA, but that is what we are fortunate to have in Norfolk."
The other factor that most people regard as important is ethos, a concept that is difficult to define. "It would seem that faith commitment and an emphasis on Christian values give rise to an environment in which children can thrive and prosper," says Bob Newman, director of schools for the Catholic archdiocese of Liverpool. Canon Richard Lindley, of the Anglican diocese of Winchester prefers to call it a sense of "common purpose" that sets spiritual aims alongside the educational. Margaret Lynne, head of Our Lady of Compassion in Sefton on Merseyside, one of the schools in the "top 15", said: "We are not one of those schools with a statue on every corridor, but we do have good links with the church and are part of that community. We look after each other, we have a strong PTA, parents come in to help and we have just opened a new nursery class which brings in the younger parents I I do think a lot of our success is down to shared values."
Michael Walsh, deputy head of St. Joseph's, agrees. "The school and the parish go to mass together once a month. There are tangible links between the school, the church and the children's homes and that helps us to involve parents across the board from homework and reading to money-raising for the school. I think that close contact is the critical thing."
Cynthia Wake thinks that Norfolk church schools have an edge in terms of community support and in belonging to a group of schools which is slightly separate from the local authority. "At the diocese I hear from heads and villagers in a way which perhaps the LEA bureaucracy does not. That can be very helpful sometimes."