When I become godmother recently to my friend's daughter, who's in her final year of primary school, I promised to guide her in life with the help of a god I do not worship nor know to exist. I said the words anyway, because I agree with the sentiment. So am I a hypocrite? If I am, I'm in the company of thousands of parents who find god the year before their child starts a new school. How curious it is, the vicar had commented to my friend, the amount of Christians that come out of the woodwork at this time of year. The admissions policies of faith schools came under the spotlight again this week, with chief schools adjudicator Ian Craig's suggestion that, rather than just favouring pupils from religious families (which the Joint Committee for Human Rights decided earlier this year they should continue to be allowed to do), they favour middle class families. Why? Because middle class parents are probably in a better situation to score the 'god points' required to get them in.
Faith schools, of which there are almost 7,000 in England - the vast majority being Anglican and Roman Catholic – are more frequently oversubscribed than secular ones. Isn't that strange, in a country where religion has been steadily declining for decades? According to the 26th British Societal Attitudes Survey, published in 2010: "Only 25 of this country's schools (primary and secondary combined) are faith schools. The figures suggest it's not exclusively their religiousness that makes them so popular. Oh! That'll be their higher than average Ofsted results then.
Looking at the statistics, it's not hard to see why they might be scoring better overall. Faith schools continue to deny that their policies see them cherry picking the best pupils, but a House of Commons report in 2009 (and their policies have not changed since then) showed that they educate fewer pupils from low income families, and fewer pupils with special educational needs. Doesn't seem very Christian of them does it?
Although the government's guidelines for faith school admissions state they should be transparent and not engage complex point scoring systems, from what I've learned from the parents I know (who suddenly found themselves digging out their Sunday best), point scoring is exactly what it's about. You'll score highly if your child was baptised or christened soon after birth, but to do it later is still worth a few. A few more for attending major religious festivals, lots more if you attend weekly. And goodness, if you start ringing bells and polishing pews, well!
When the Joint Human Rights Committee examined faith schools' admissions policies under the Equality Bill, they recommended that the rules remain in place, largely lest those schools lose their religious character and so deny religious families the opportunity to educate their children at a school that supports their faith.
But why should schools do that anyway? This is a multi-cultural, multi-faith society and if all children learned that at an early age, at a secular, inclusive school, perhaps we would achieve a better and happier level of integration. And perhaps the schools 'playing field' would level out a bit too.
David Cameron disagree with me - he wants even more faith schools. Even atheist David Miliband, whose party was trying to phase out discriminative admissions policies, is not immune to the ridiculously skewed system: he's sent his son to a CofE school which told The Telegraph: "Mrs Miliband had been a practising member of the congregation in this parish for over a year prior to her application for a place at the school." How curious.
In two years' time I will be facing the same choices as my friends, and I have to ask myself what I will do, given the system is likely to be the same. Well, if there is a god, and if he has the power to get my daughter into a Grade 1 school rather than a Grade 5 one, I guess I'll be donning a hat and going along to say 'please' and 'thank you.'
By: Pip Jones
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