Gazette Article 22: “Should we have faith in schools’ selectivity ethos?”

If a church school in Brentwood were to teach the bible as literal fact could they risk being put in “special measures”?

Is there now a greater chance of more faith schools being created in Essex?

How independent from political meddling are Ofsted?

These are just some of the questions arising from the recent “Trojan Horse” controversy in Birmingham which, following an anonymous letter sent to the Department for Education (DfE) alleging “extremism” led to five schools being deemed “inadequate”.

IMG_0132One secondary school, Park View, had been visited only ten days previously by Ofsted who had issued minor warnings on a small section of their report. Incredibly, the same set of inspectors were then ordered back in and produced an entirely different report leaving parents and staff bewildered and angry.

The schools affected were not designated faith schools but, reflecting their largely Muslim intake, they were making allowances for those who wished to practice their religion as part of the school day. Their exam results had been noted as exceptional given the social background of the majority of students but now the effect of this has been identified by Ofsted as not providing a sufficiently broad and balanced curriculum.

Despite this controversy some have called for more, not less, faith schools as a consequence. While I can sympathise with those who argue that other religions are not treated in the same way as Christians in this matter, I am puzzled by the growth of faith schools over the past twenty years or so given that church attendance has fallen over that period.

According to figures in 2011, of the over 20,000 state schools in England, around a third are identified as faith schools. More than two thirds of those were C of E schools, 30% were Catholic, less than 60 existed for other faiths.

In Brentwood 14 schools out of 29 fall into this category, most historically established around the distinct parishes of the town, although the involvement of the church will vary dependent on status.

Voluntary Controlled (VC) schools were schools established by the church but have since been taken on fully by the local authority, Voluntary Aided (VA) schools still receive some financial support from the diocese and are allowed to select the vast majority of the board of governors as a consequence.

It may surprise some that the amount of financial support provided by the Church does not reflect their dominance of VA boards, they only provide up to 10% of capital and maintenance costs following reforms to school funding under faith school fan Tony Blair.

My puzzlement about this state of affairs is that it does not seem to reflect society itself.

A third of schools are faiths schools and yet, according to a 2007 Tearfund survey, only 15% professed to attend church once a month and only 6% more frequently than that.

So why do the number of faith schools not reflect that? We are told that the “ethos” of these schools appeals to non-church goers. The schools teach students to show respect to themselves and others, to be responsible, caring and community minded and to be the best they can be. But I fear the appeal is often about being part of a selective school.

I am not alone in being concerned about this. The incoming chief education officer for the Church of England, Rev Nigel Genders, stated in the Telegraph earlier this month that new schools they establish will have open admissions criteria to enable them to “serve the local community”.

Surely all state funded schools should be doing that as a matter of course?

Oh, and that ethos I described is by no means unique to church schools either. I copied it from the Shenfield High School website.

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