A church broader than we realised?
The Bishop of Portsmouth's letter this week saying that all new Church of England schools should make at least 25 per cent of their places available to those of other faiths should not really come as a surprise. That it is surprising to many is due to the prevailing idea - at least in some of the media - that you can only get your child into a CE school by swallowing your pride, acting the hypocrite and buttering up the vicar so that he or she is sure to remember you when the time comes for the all-important reference. No doubt there are some people who do that, but the idea is more urban myth than reality.
First, it ignores the fact that half of all CE schools are voluntary-controlled and therefore have the same admissions policies as community schools, simply serving the local community without any faith-based criteria. Second, it overlooks the aim of the majority of voluntary-aided CE schools to serve their local community.
These schools often give priority to local children - regardless of their faith or lack of it - over those from further afield who fulfil faith criteria. This is generally the case with rural and inner-city CE schools.
However, competition for places at a CE school is fiercer in suburban areas, where the proportion of church primary schools is lower. CE secondaries are also comparatively few in number and unevenly spread, with the result that most are heavily oversubscribed.
The shortage of CE schools in many communities creates a problem for the Church as well as for parents, and indeed for local authorities. Ideally, there should be a place in a church school for every child whose parent wants them to have a CE education, whether they are Christian or of another faith or of none.
No church school wants to turn children away, or give the appearance of making it hard for children to get in. The impression given will be that the Church, not just the school, is rejecting children. Since that is directly contrary to the words of Jesus - "Let the children come to me" - the Church has in recent years striven to provide access for all. Where possible, and where parental support and local agreement allow, the Church is looking to increase the number of places in church schools - in the primary sector, but especially in the secondary sector. Lord Dearing's report in 2001 challenged the Church to provide an additional 100 secondary schools in the next seven or eight years, a target the Church is well on the way to achieving.
Two-thirds of new CE secondaries are serving more disadvantaged communities. Almost all of the new schools provide places on a local rather than a faith-priority basis. This fits with the Church's understanding of its role as the "church for the nation". Establishment means that the Church has a particular vocation to serve the whole community as well as to nurture Christians in their faith.
Indeed, that is what it has been doing since the National Society was founded in 1811 to set up schools which are accessible to the children of the poor. Early provision was based on charitable giving and was inevitably imperfect and patchy. Nevertheless, the intention was clear: to provide an education for the nation's children based on the nation's religion, in effect the beginning of a universal system of education in England and Wales.
By 1870, when government action founded local school boards and filled in the gaps between Church and other voluntary provision, there were 8,798 voluntary schools in England and Wales, of which 6,724 were provided by the National Society.
To require this level of commitment from the other denominations and faith communities within England and Wales would not be appropriate. Yet the existence of non-Christian faith schools is itself a sign of the inclusion of those communities within British society, as the Bishop of Portsmouth argues in his letter.
In the 19th century, Roman Catholic schools were a sign that a largely immigrant population was a full part of British society, to the point where it could no longer be questioned whether you could be British and Catholic.
In the same way, Muslim, Sikh and Hindu schools - like the comparatively small number of Jewish schools - point to the full inclusion in British society of the communities they serve.
Canon John Hall is the Church of England's chief education officer