Keeping the faith in all church schools

19th December 2008 at 00:00
Parents choose them for many reasons but their role is to promote understanding of all beliefs - even atheism

Apart from either its historic or legal status, what does it mean to be a faith school? Governance will be determined by foundation status, and the selection of governors will be a matter for differing faith communities, although this will vary as to whether the school is aided or controlled. But, apart from its governance, what makes a faith school so different from any other?

Clearly, there are faith groups who wish to see their children educated within a particular tradition. Their motivation is a wish for the highest possible educational achievement. This is often especially true for those from minority communities with a strong desire to succeed within the host community. So it is not surprising that Jewish and Muslim schools have significant levels of achievement at GCSE, at key stage 2 for English and maths, and for their contextual value-added scores.

However, there is much more to educational achievement than just these levels of attainment. If education is to have any value as a way to integration and good citizenship, it needs to address how these are to be realised. Learning in separate schools on the basis of one particular faith or philosophy does not guarantee a rounded view of the diversity of society. To put it simply, if children are unable to play in the same playground, how can they be expected to live in the same street?

Whether such distinctive faith schools should receive state support is open to question, because the state has a duty to ensure social cohesion and tolerance.

The Church of England is in a unique position. It established many schools in the latter part of the 19th century under the School Sites Act and subsequent legislation to provide education for the labouring and manufacturing classes, whose children did not receive education. It is to the Church's credit that this need was met.

The situation is significantly different today, when there is a statutory duty for every child to be in full-time education. The Church upholds its schools as being successful, and some dioceses suggest that church schools are at the centre of their mission. But it is difficult to quantify how many parents would agree with such a stated purpose, even if they and the Church really understood what that mission was.

Much is made of a particular ethos that exists within church schools and contributes to their success. But in what ways does one ethos differ from any other? If it is a matter of teaching physics, for example, how can it be taught in a Christian, Muslim or Jewish way that differs significantly from physics taught in none of these ways? Furthermore, in terms of values, are faith communities suggesting that their approaches to life and the issues society faces are better than those who may hold the highest of human values and respect but no faith position? There is a lack of logical consideration of these issues when it comes to faith schools.

The simple reason that they reach certain standards, albeit within a limited range, has more to do with admission procedures than the faith they profess. Many parents wish their children to achieve significant success and are prepared to do anything to ensure that their child has the best of all possible chances.

Parents wanting their children to attend a Church of England school are often not that concerned about the Christian faith and its doctrines. In fact, if many were to understand the radical implications of the Gospel, they might be concerned if their children were encouraged to believe the words of Jesus: "For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law ... He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me." (Matthew 10:35-37). This may not be appreciated at a parents' evening!

There have been recent examples of church schools operating very selective criteria to ensure that the right kind of child is admitted. As an Anglican priest, I have been asked to lie on four occasions about church attendance in order to ensure admittance to a successful church school, (not always Anglican). This kind of parental drive and motivation will, more often than not, result in a similar drive and achievement by the pupil. There can be nothing wrong in this, but it is a delusion to believe that it is solely on the basis of that school belonging to a particular faith.

What I believe the Church should promote - and I cannot speak for any other faith - is the best possible education for the greatest number of children, and for it to be in an inclusive and cohesive context that doesn't seek to promote any one faith but engenders a respect and understanding of all faith traditions and none.

Canon David Jennings, Rector of Burbage with Aston Flamville, Leicestershire.

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