Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Poll - The truth about church schools

reposted from:
Chris Street comments are in bright green;
highlights in yellow blockquotes.
Simon Barrow

When the Church of England's own survey shows widespread dissatisfaction with its schools, it's time to face the facts

November 20, 2007 11:00 AM | Printable version

A survey by Opinion Research Business (ORB), commissioned by the Church of England and published today, has revealed

widespread distrust of church schools. Not that you would know this if you just went on the accompanying press release, which is an astonishing attempt to massage away certain awkward facts.

"Getting top marks: People of all faiths and none back church schools' popularity" the C of E proclaims. Well, yes, there are many parents who are indeed happy with church schools. So happy that some of them lie about their church or faith affiliation to get a place for their kids.
But this is only part of the story.

The other facts, hidden behind a veil of spin, are that

significant proportions of the population believe that church schools discourage open discussion of important social and political topics, that children from better-off backgrounds are more likely to get into them, and that they create divisions between different sections of society. Many also believe that church schools try to force their own opinions on children rather than giving a balanced view of other religions and ideas.

Two sets of questions were asked by the survey. The first concerned how different Church of England schools were considered to be, in comparison with state schools run by local authorities. Under half (45%) of those polled considered church schools to be significantly different.

This segment was then asked for their qualitative opinions about church schools. A majority agreed with statements that

church schools, like other schools, helped to develop a sense of right and wrong, provided a broad and balanced education, had a caring approach and produced good behaviour.
However, only half believed they achieved better educational results than other schools.

Just over half (51%) also felt that the sex education they provided was "incomplete or restricted", and just under half (47%) said they felt that

church schools discouraged open discussion of key public issues.
Over a third (35%) said they believed that
church schools tried to force their own viewpoint on children rather than giving a balanced view of other life stances or ideas.
The same percentage said that
children in Church of England schools were "exposed to narrow religious teaching".

There was further bad news for the church over admissions procedures. Some 45% said that the rules on admitting pupils to Church of England schools mean that children from better-off backgrounds are more likely to get in. Only marginally fewer (43%) said they believed the schools created divisions between different sections of society.

Taken together with other surveys that show widespread questioning and dissatisfaction among parents and others concerned with schooling, this survey signals the need for a much wider debate about community-based inclusive schooling, whether faith schools can contribute to it, and where they cannot, what changes are needed in public policy.

There are two major blocks on such a debate. First, both government and the church have a vested interest in preserving the status quo. The government is desperate in its search for legitimation, popularity among middle-class voters, and mechanisms for service delivery.

The Church of England believes (probably wrongly) that church schools will deliver a further generation of adherents and that a stake in educational governance gives it credibility in the face of falling numbers and finance.
As the traditional alliance of church and state withers, this is the shape of a wider, emerging "new deal". It needs proper attention and criticism.

Second, those with a vested interest in faith schools often seek to portray opposition to them as just the bitterness of a small anti-religious minority. The angry rhetoric of some secular groups does not help, as a civil servant observed to me recently. But the issue is that there are many voices not being adequately reflected in the current "debate". For a start the concerns of a majority of parents, plus teaching unions, a leading government adviser, a number of Christian chaplains, Londoners, Jewish rabbis, Hindus, Muslims, Methodists,

, Quakers and others who do not share the dominant assumptions of Anglican and Catholic pro-faith schools lobby.

To her credit, the Church of England's chief education officer, the Rev Jan Ainsworth, concedes that

the survey "presents a challenge to the Church to explain more clearly how church schools approach the teaching of religious studies" - which has been moving slowly in the direction of inclusivity, despite the anachronistic restrictions of the 1944 Education Act and the predominant failure, for example, to include non-religious life stances.

She also admits, with a degree of understatement, that "there is still uncertainty about the fairness of admissions policies used by [church schools]". In fact the church at both national and diocesan level has consistently defended the right of its schools to discriminate in admissions, giving priority to those who attend churches linked to the schools. This is despite the fact that most church schools are almost entirely funded by public funds. One quarter of all primary schools are church schools.

But the church needs to go much further. In refusing to acknowledge that there are major problems with its policies it is making itself look unhelpful and foolish to many parents and to a significant chunk of the population. When Jesus Christ said "the truth will set you free", he clearly meant a lot more than that "you should face the facts". But he didn't mean less, and without much greater honesty there can be neither truth nor freedom.

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