Public call for end to selection of pupils by faith at Church of England Schools

20 members of the Church of England have issued an open letter urging that the Church changes its pupil admissions guidance so that all its schools move towards operating open and non-religiously selective admission arrangements. Published in tomorrow’s Guardian, the letter highlights how religiously selective policies place the Church in a conflicted position, by inflating Church attendance figures and skewing Church School intakes towards the children of more affluent, so boosting the schools’ results. The signatories argue that is at fundamental odds with the Church’s mission to wider society, so should be reformed.

The letter has been signed by clergy, Members of Parliament and active lay persons. Theologian and writer, Theo Hobson, who helped organise the letter, said ‘Many Church Schools already do not select pupils by faith, highlighting that it is not necessary to have selection to maintain a Christian ethos. In fact, it is by operating policies that incentivise religious inauthenticity and which disadvantage the poor that Church schools undermine their ethos. The Church can and should demonstrate greater leadership and revise its admissions guidance.’

Letter signatory, the Rev Stephen Terry, said, ‘Faith selection at Church of England schools makes the Church appear defensive and inward looking, when the schools should look outwards, as an expression of the warmth and generosity of our mission to the whole community. Having open admissions would not just better serve local communities, but undoubtedly help achieve a more positive image and reputation for the Church in society.’

The statutory School Admissions Code requires state funded faith schools that set their own admissions policy to have regard for admissions guidance from their designated religious authority. The authority for Church of England schools is their respective Diocese. The Church of England’s Board of Education and the National Society issue admissions guidance for school governors and Dioceses. It has been almost four years since it was last updated.

The full letter is reproduced below:

Dear Editor,

We are a group of Anglican clergy and laypeople urging that the Church amends its school admissions guidance, so that its schools no longer select pupils on grounds of church attendance. Currently many oversubscribed Church Schools reject non-churchgoing families, even though the families may live near to the school, while this system is open to abuse.

A December 2013 Sutton Trust commissioned survey showed that 6% of parents with a child at a state funded school admitted to attending church services when they would have not otherwise, so a child could go to a Church School. Considering that a quarter of pupil places in the state system are at faith schools and many faith schools do not reward Church attendance (many show preference to baptised or local children), the survey points to widespread abuse among those that do. Worryingly, among parents of socio-economic group A the level of false Church attendance rose to 10%.

On a superficial level this is in the Church’s interest, as attendance figures in many parishes are inflated and the standard of our schools boosted by the admittance of children from more affluent families. Ultimately however the universality of the Church is being turned to the advantage of those who are already advantaged. We believe this issue presents a slow-burning crisis.

We urge the Church to review and then amend its national guidance on pupil admissions, so that schools are guided towards having open admission arrangements. Church of England schools should look outwards, as an expression of the warmth and generosity of its mission to the whole community. Ensuring this would achieve a more positive standing for the Church in society and better serve local communities.

Yours sincerely,

  • Christina Baron, Lay member of General Synod
  • Simon Barrow, co-Director of Ekklesia
  • Jonathan Bartley, co-Director of Ekklesia
  • Revd Richard Bentley
  • Revd Jeremy Chadd, Vicar of St Chad, Sunderland
  • Revd Canon Richard Franklin, Vicar of Holy Trinity, Weymouth
  • Baroness Harris of Richmond
  • Savitri Hensman, writer on Christian social ethics and theology
  • Theo Hobson, theologian and commentator
  • Revd Richard C B Jones, Associate Minister, Borders Group of Parishes; Hereford Diocese
  • Revd Richard Kirker
  • Reverend Una Kroll
  • Revd Professor Christopher Rowland
  • Barry Sheerman MP, Lay Canon, Wakefield Cathedral; House of Commons Education Select Committee Chair 1999-2010
  • Professor Lord Smith of Clifton
  • John Swallow, former President of the National Association of Head Teachers
  • Revd Stephen Terry, Rector of the Parish of Aldrington in Hove; former Chair of Governors at a C of E state funded school
  • Revd Keith Trivasse, Associate Priest Parish of Bury Roch Valley, Bury; Manchester
  • Professor Keith Ward, Regius Professor of Divinity Emeritus, Oxford
  • Revd Simon Wilson



Misuse of religiously selective policies

The Sutton Trust’s December 2013 survey looked at strategies that parents used to try and get their child into a better school. When it is considered how few pupil places the 6% of parents that engage in inauthentic church worship are chasing, the survey suggests widespread abuse in admissions to popular schools that reward church attendance. Although a third of state funded schools in England are faith schools, they only provide a quarter of the pupil places and many faith schools do not reward Church worship. This is because they operate open admissions, or are not oversubscribed (so must admit all children that wish to attend), or because they reward other religious activities. For example, 40% of places in England’s state funded faith sector are at Roman Catholic schools and most such schools instead show preference to those on the basis of baptism.

Worrying evidence has emerged that suggests baptism could also be being misused. The Pastoral Research Centre released data in Jan 2014 showing that while the number of baptisms of children under the age of one in England and Wales was in long term decline, the number of baptisms of those aged over one had risen dramatically over the previous decade. The change is consistent with parents having children baptised as their child nears school age, as part of a strategy to increase their chance of being admitted to a popular Catholic school.

Socio-economic selection due to religious selection

It has long been established that the faith sector admits children from more affluent backgrounds. However, an exhaustive December 2013 study by the Fair Admissions Campaign showed a correlation between religious and socio-economic selection. It foundthat comprehensive secondary schools in England with no religious character admitted 5% more pupils eligible for free school meals than would be expected if they admitted those children living nearest to them. Comprehensive Church of England secondaries were found to admit 15% fewer, but a sharp difference was found between those that do and do not select by faith. Those that had a fully selective oversubscription policy admitted 35% fewer, whereas those that did not admitted 1% fewer than would be expected. Eligibility for free school meals is a key government measure of deprivation.

Most Church Schools were set up to educate the disadvantaged

Serving the better-heeled in their communities is a distortion to the original mission of most Church schools. The National Society, which created most Anglican schools, was established to provide schools for children from poor families. Similarly the precursor to the Catholic Education Service of England and Wales was named the ‘Catholic Poor School Committee’.