22nd April 2011 at 01:00

Taxpayer-funded piety for the few? No, even the godless have a right to faith education.

The Bishop of Oxford has delivered a message at Easter that some of his congregation will find difficult to accept. The Rt Revd John Pritchard believes that church schools' prime mission is to serve the wider community and not to act as safe havens for the faithful. He proposes therefore to open up admissions and limit places reserved for believers to 10 per cent (page 1).

Many church-goers will be appalled. Why should their schools be opened up so fully to non-believers? In what sense will they continue to be faith schools? The bishop's acknowledgment that if intakes were widened results could fall is bound to induce a bout of not particularly Christian handwringing. Even secular cuckoos who spent years attending church and aping piety to get their children into faith schools might be a tad annoyed that a system they had learnt to play was no longer operational.

Revd Pritchard thinks that the church's duty to the whole community, and in particular to the disadvantaged, outweighs those concerns. His admission that exam results could suffer from widening participation implicitly acknowledges that church schools could be more inclusive than they have been. But he argues that they exist not to proselytise but to give the best education to those with the least opportunity. Social responsibility trumps theological purity.

But it seems unlikely that his generous sentiments will be echoed widely by other church leaders. Indeed, it was only a few years ago that a secretary of state was forced to abandon plans to limit faith admissions to church schools by a blocking combination of bishops. It is perhaps understandable why those faiths that are not part of the established church should feel disinclined to welcome huge numbers of non-believing pupils. They are proud of being a distinctive minority. But to be blunt, it is a distinctiveness that is almost totally dependent on the generosity of the state.

The vast majority of faith school funding is provided by taxpayers, who come in two varieties - the religious and the non-religious. Whatever the precise proportions, it is generally accepted that services paid for by taxpayers should be available to all. Except when it comes to faith schools. Here, believing taxpayers often take precedence over non-believing ones. One hundred per cent discrimination for the remarkably cheap price of a 10 per cent contribution to building costs.

This is patently unjust. Church leaders may retort that non-believing taxpayers have access to the 80 per cent of schools that are non-faith. But that isn't the point. Can you imagine a non-faith school refusing to admit a church-going pupil because there was a school for her sort locally? The Bishop of Oxford has taken a principled stand. But it is time the state was equally brave and told faith schools to open their doors.


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