Church beware the state

8th June 2001 at 01:00
Church schools are popular, so the Government wants more of them. Peter Inson points out the pitfalls.

AT the end of last year, the newspapers reported a call for another 100 Church of England secondary schools, following a concern that many children who attend C of E primary schools cannot be found places in church secondary schools. The idea is favoured by the Church, which wishes to extend its educational work, and the state, which sees that church schools are more popular and successful.

For eight years I taught in a Roman Catholic secondary school, followed by 10 years as deputy head or head of C of E secondaries. I was a determined advocate of church schools. Now, however, I find myself wary of the Government's enthusiasm.

My concern is that the distinctive nature of church schools is threatened because they are being used to promote the interests of the party of government, rather than the interests of the Church of England or of the children who attend its schools. The virtues of church schools have long been recognised by parents, churchgoers and non-churchgoers alike, who are rightly concerned that their children should not attend schools where there is not universal support for the school on the part of parents or where a child's fellow pupils will undermine their values and thwart their desire that the child should be taught well.

This truth is being ignored.

Now the Government seems to have discovered the virtues of such schools. There is no suggestion that the Church should step in to deal with a shortage of secondary-school places; there is a surplus of 11 per cent. The government's plans involve the Church of England taking over existing schools. Church schools work, so there are to be more so-called church schools.

Under the 1944 Education Act, church schools appointed staff and admitted pupils in much the same way that independent schools do. Nowadays, intervention by local education authorities has grown enormously. This is crucial. It is the school that these parents trust, not the Government, not the local education authority, nor any commercial organsation. Parents know that a good school concerns itself with those for whom it has a clear and direct responsibility and concerning whom it has adequate and clear powers. Parents know that these other bodies have wider agendas and short-term interests, electoral or financial.

The Church of England is in danger of entangling itself in an undignified re-badging exercise. Its existing secondary schools cannot be sure of being led by committed Anglicans; in some areas, getting staff at all is difficult enough without the luxury of appointing practising Christians.

They also provide for children of other denominations and faiths, as well as children whose families have none. This indicates the extent to which the demand for church school places comes from some families who are indifferent to the church - and even hostile. They just want something better than the local comprehensive.

Why should the Church stretch further its precious resources, political, human and material, to assist politicians in their search for quick fixes? Why should the Church seek to extend its mission into areas where it will become little more than an instrument of the government, and in circumstances where it will not have the independence necessary to be true to itself? Why "cosy up" to politicians who may well be out of office before any deal can be implemented?

Why does the church not recognise its strong hand and make demands of government? Why does it not show the sort of lead in education that it does as a well-respected voluntary body in social care? Why does it not demand independence sufficient to ensure appropriate staffing, the admission of children whose families are genuinely supportive of the school and complete and independent funding?

My faith in church schools continues. I do believe, however, that the Church should seek for its existing schools and parents the independence that would safeguard its commitment to education and ensure that any expansion of this mission would be sustainable and worthwhile.

Peter Inson teaches at an international boarding school in Switzerland

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