Ungodly efforts to join the elite pew

27th September 1996 at 01:00
Verily, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a child with insufficient points to get into an oversubscribed Church of England secondary school in Bolton.

A revealing Channel 4 documentary, to be shown on Tuesday, demonstrates the astonishing hoops of dubious devotion through which desperate parents are made to jump to get Junior into the right school.

The borough's church establishments use a points system to allocate places, with the would-be pupil's attendence at church and related activities clocking up the marks. But, apparently, the meter runs at double speed for parental bums on pews and therein lies the problem.

This year, Canon Slade GM School, much sought-after thanks to its pole position on the Bolton league table, demanded 31 points for automatic September entry, thus turning away the offspring of numerous overworked, overcommitted, separated or single parents, many of whom had done their best to ensure that their kids had been regular churchgoers. Unfortunately they hadn't been able to go themselves, and lost vital extra points.

Ironically enough, the system appears to bring out unchristian feelings in those battling through it. Dark tales are told of threats to withdraw church covenants and, shockingly, some parents also attend church regularly until they've got the school place when surprise, surprise, they disappear.

None of which impresses the local clergy. The Rev. David Brierly says: "I would have thought that in any way of life, or style of life, or situation of life, it's possible to make the time to be in church."

Stories of the families appealing to get their children into Canon Slade can say more about the system than the individuals. Mother of seven Susan Walsh has already got two daughters in and son Kevan has clocked up 30 points. But the only time she can do the housework is when her offspring are in church - precluding her going with them - and so she hopes her voluntary work for the Sally Army will do the trick.

Another child is just half a point off but thanks to a parental divorce and Dad's training as a minister had "extra" worship in other churches which is difficult to prove.

And then there is young Georgina Clarke, taken to church regularly by her granny as her single mum works nights at weekends. Georgina can recite chunks of the Bible, and tells of her love for Jesus. Unfortunately Granny does not count as a points-earning parent.

Unsurprisingly, her mother is bitter at the failure of Georgina's appeal, believing the system discriminates against working single parents. And, tellingly, Georgina appears to be the only child whose second choice was also a church school. Requiring just 10 points, St James Church of England GM technology college seems much more interested in Georgina's Christianity than that of her mother and provides a nice welcome.

Meanwhile, it is hard not to agree with her mother, who says bitterly: "It's a joke. There is no choice."

Witness: School Prayers. Channel 4, Tuesday, 9pm

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