O Lord, deliver us from more church schools

For a while, Dr Rowan Williams sounded liberal and thoughtful about education. But that's all gone now. The prospect of academies and free schools giving his Church more power over what our children are taught has entirely overcome his principles. He has been dazzled by a hoped-for future where "the Church of England (CofE) will be quite conceivably the largest sponsor and provider of secondary education in this country", a prospect he accurately describes as "startling" and "breathtaking" (TES, 30 September).

His dream could come true, especially if you throw in the state schools owned and controlled by front organisations for the CofE, like United Learning Trust, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the United Church Schools Trust. If you then add in those owned and controlled by assorted evangelical Christians, Catholics and other Christian sects, they could well have enough schools to ensure the next generation is taught that Jesus is the Son of God, even though most of the present generation don't believe it.

Thus the Church can ensure that prayers are said somewhere, even though so few people want to say them voluntarily that churches are empty and getting emptier. Thus can Dr Williams hope to replenish his supply of priests, which is now so diminished that one priest often has to serve several churches. Thus can he get his expressed wish of ensuring that all schools have a daily act of "broadly Christian" collective worship, a legal obligation that many of them currently quietly evade. The daily act of Christian worship, he says, will make schools "intelligent communities". There's no reason why a school that teaches history and mathematics and literature and philosophy cannot be an intelligent community without mouthing the approved words from the approved religion to the approved deity. But modern Christians can't any longer get away with saying that you must intone the Lord's Prayer because otherwise you'll fry in Hell. So, instead, they talk about "intelligent communities" and "spiritual dimensions" and imply that, unless you force-feed children their set of beliefs, schools will degenerate into soulless skill-factories.

I can see why the Archbishop of Canterbury would like to control schools - it may be the only hope his church has of long-term survival. But, for the sake of the pupils and the teachers, we shouldn't let him.

First, the pupils. Will you be able to get your child into the burgeoning army of church schools without being a Christian or at least pretending to be one? Recent admissions advice from the church avoids answering the question directly, but says "when a governing body reviews its admissions policy, it should have regard to the responsibility of all church schools to be living Christian communities strongly related to the local community".

If that's not clear - and it isn't - here are the weasel words of the Bishop of Oxford, launching the advice: "The vast majority of church schools serve the local community by providing education for those of the Christian faith, other faiths and no faith at all. It is only when a school is oversubscribed that other criteria come into play." All we can be sure of from those words is that, if most schools are controlled by the CofE, you will have a much better chance of getting a good education for your child if you are a member of that church.

A presumption of faith

What happens when a child from a non-Christian family does get into a CofE school? In 2004, the church issued a document which said that it was involved in education to "nourish those of faith, encourage those of other faiths, challenge those who have no faith". Note that only those who have no faith get "challenged".

Church schools "are places ... which offer opportunities to pupils and their families to explore the truths of the Christian faith". You're not supposed to question Christianity; you're supposed to "explore" its "truths". They should, says the document, reserve some places "for children of other faiths, and perhaps even of no faith". I like "perhaps even". I'm trying hard to feel grateful.

The document also talked about teaching children "Christian values". Christians like to colonise such virtues as truthfulness, generosity and compassion, but we atheists can live good lives, too. Better, in fact, because we don't expect to be rewarded in the afterlife. Our kindness is not a spiritual get-rich-quick policy, nor our truthfulness a means of building a celestial hedge fund.

Second, the teachers. Back in 2006, the CofE told its schools to employ, and promote, more Christian teachers. The Roman Catholic church went further: David McNab, an atheist maths teacher, won #163;2,000 discrimination damages from Glasgow City Council at an employment tribunal after the Roman Catholic school where he taught refused to consider him for promotion to a pastoral care post because he's not a Catholic. But he only won on a technicality.

There's a list of reserved posts for which only Catholics can apply and, by an oversight, this post wasn't on it. The church can legally insist on Catholics for heads, deputy heads and several other jobs. It can also ban any teacher who has been divorced and remarried. And, quite often, it does.

If the archbishop gets his way, non-Christian teachers who want to climb the career ladder will need either to change profession or take the road to Damascus.

Francis Beckett's latest book, 'What Did The Baby Boomers Ever Do For Us?', is published by Biteback.

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