‘What some will do to get a child into a religiously selective school’

The following article was originally published by The Times on 20 November, written by Helen Rumbelow:

Looking around the hall you may have thought the crowd were here to learn a lottery result — they were tense, straining as they waited to hear the one number that would set the fate of hundreds of winners and, worse, cast to purgatory those losers who had prayed so hard.

Tickets had run out long before, the headmistress had sung a hymn of outstanding results and the perfectly groomed teenage pupils had played angelic music. Now came the important bit: how many points of religiosity did parents need to get in?

The admissions leader at Twyford Church of England High School in West London took a deep breath and said: “Last year the number was …..” The crowd inhaled. “The full 27.”

Soon there was a scramble for the doors. “Honey, it’s 27” said one man on the phone to his wife, undisguised panic rising in his voice.

What “the full 27” meant was that in order for their child to have a chance of attending this taxpayer-funded state school, they would have to gather points by committing to extraordinary levels of devotion to a religious institution. At the minimum this school demanded a solid half decade of church service: weekly attendance at services for both parent and child, plus at least two supplementary voluntary activities by both parent and child. You didn’t just have to get down on your knees, you had to get down on your knees and clean the church floor while you were there (regular church cleaning = 1 point).

The past week has shown the future of Christian schools in crisis. On Monday, George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, announced that Anglican church attendance was dwindling so fast it was one generation away from extinction, with young people mostly staying away. Yet on the same day, the Right Rev John Pritchard, the Bishop of Oxford, spoke in defence of Anglican schools and, by extension, their entry requirements based on church attendance.

Something here does not compute: churchgoing is down so far it is in crisis, yet at churches connected to sought-after Anglican schools, the pews could not be more packed with parents and toddlers.

Meanwhile the current Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, told The Times there was a move from “faith-based entry tests” so that church schools would better serve the common good. Implicit in his remarks is embarrassment over a body of research which shows that faith schools in England cater to a disproportionate group of richer, whiter, more educated families in their areas. In other words, the “on your knees to avoid school fees” crowd were propping up emptying Sunday services, often paying in direct debits and supplying many hours of unpaid work in their desperation to please. That may in itself turn off those who are crying out for spiritual leadership but find the sight of parents feeling obliged to give free IT support to their church (1 point) far from divine. If Jesus were somehow born again in the suburbs around Twyford school, what would he do?

Andrew Penman’s is a good example of the anomalous situation parents find themselves in. Despite being an atheist he felt compelled to embark upon a two-year campaign of religiosity. “I remember catching the eye of someone I knew, a fellow atheist, across the font: it was surreal, like living in an alien culture. Everyone knew those congregations were full of non-believers, there for one specific reason.”

When Penman’s son was born, he was pleased that the local state primary was just across the road from his house in South London. “I was naive,” he says. Penman is rare in talking openly about his begrudging church attendance in his book, School Daze: My Search for a Decent State Secondary School , but those in the business talk off the record about the frequency of nursery conversions and, for faith secondaries, the “Year 5 epiphany”.

“I have had all sorts of abuse for admitting that I faked being religious, but I’m not a hypocrite,” says Penman. “I have never condemned anyone for what I did. And I’m not the only one. If you go to most Anglican churches you see empty pews. But if a church is near a successful school, it’s rammed with parents of toddlers. What angers me is that people are effectively banned from sending their kids to the local state school if they don’t follow a particular cult, a school where all the staff, cooks, everything, are paid by the public.”

Sometimes tensions bubble over in public. Earlier this year parents at the Kentish Town Church of England Primary School in North London came close to war. The school had recently been rated outstanding by Ofsted and this led to a surge of parents applying for church places, up tenfold in one year. They took priority over the younger siblings of children already at the school but who were there on nonreligious grounds. These aggrieved parents accused the new church applicants of middle-class pushiness and of “working” the system.

Carol Fry, the churchwarden, told the local paper that she had taken to patrolling the back pews to watch for parental sneakery: “I hold the register and I’m absolutely rigorous. I sit at the back and make sure they don’t sign and go off again.”

But mostly the practices are covert: a City solicitor I knew was suddenly seen sweeping leaves in the local churchyard. For him it came down to “pray or pay”: the alternative to the almost exclusively middle-class church school was private fees for three children. He worked out that every hour spent leaf-sweeping would save him £1,000, more than he charged his clients.

It was this kind of point-accruing act of service — aka “jumping through hoops” — that landed London Oratory School , an esteemed Catholic secondary favoured by the children of Tony Blair and Nick Clegg, in trouble with the Office of the Schools Adjudicator this summer. The adjudicator ruled that such tests of commitment gave an advantage to parents who are “good at planning ahead”, a little euphemism for the middle classes.

Faith schools account for a third of state schools in England, mostly Anglican, a lesser proportion Catholic, and a few Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh. As Education Secretary, David Blunkett tried to force faith schools to widen their admissions but later Ruth Kelly, supported by Tony Blair, gave full backing to an expansion of the faith school programme.

Faith-based academies have boomed and it is important to note that these are generally new secondary schools in more deprived areas that admit far fewer children based on faith. This is why the Bishop of Oxford was yesterday keen to emphasise that church secondaries are not socially divisive compared with the national average, although if you compare the intake of church secondaries to their local areas the figures show that they still take 13 per cent fewer children eligible for free school meals than other state schools.

For primaries, the segregation is more marked. In 2011 Olmo Silva from the London School of Economics examined all 11,000 state primaries in England and found that children at church school were more likely to have English as a first language and be white and were less likely to have special educational needs or be eligible for free school meals.

“Even when you have children living in the same street, the child that goes to faith school is more likely to be better off and white. What we’re seeing here is parents who are better off are more able to commit to the entry requirements.”

The flipside of the research was that Silva found that nearly all of the better test results of the church schools were accounted for by the more privileged intake — in other words a white, middle-class kid would do just as well at a non-faith school.

Research by Rebecca Allen at the Institute of Education found that the sheer complexity of rules surrounding entry to faith schools put off all but the most determined and educated parents. Yes, she says, the affluent are more likely to be religious. However, even among religious people her research shows that the rich are more likely to go to a church school than the poor. It’s as if the admissions to the best faith schools are the eye of the needle and the rich are indeed pushing a camel through.

“Privately, a lot of churches don’t want to end the current system as it is a means to get bums on seats on a Sunday,” says Allen. Research has never been done, she says, on how often parents find God when their child is coming up to school age: “If you ask people you don’t get an honest response, not necessarily because they lie but because they justify it to themselves.” She adds: “There is a policy that would avoid the perpetual gaming that takes place. Church schools would have to restrict their faith-based places to the number of local churchgoers who had children in the age range of the school. There would be little point in the parents of four-year-olds going to church if the older ones didn’t continue and there would be no incentive for the older ones to continue if they weren’t there for the religion.”

I ask Silva if he would consider a faith school when he had children. “Well, the system of admissions to a faith school sometimes sounds less unfair than the selection by mortgage you get for good community schools. What is more fair, the ethical discomfort from faking religious belief or being barred by the fact that you can’t spend that amount on a house?”

It’s something to meditate on this Sunday: do you want your reward to be in heaven or in the property market? Needless to say campaigners for social mobility through education — like, say, the Sutton Trust — advocate selection by lottery. Real lotteries, not just those that come up with a number 27.

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