Which vision do schools follow?

The purpose and admissions criteria of church schools are subjects of continuous debate. Tim Wyatt looks at the arguments

Originally published by the Church Times.

“THE National Religion should be made the foundation of National Education, and should be the first and chief thing taught to the poor, according to the excellent Liturgy and Catechism provided by our Church.”

So say the founding documents of the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church in England and Wales, which was created 207 years ago next month, by a wealthy London businessman and philanthropist, Joshua Watson.

Watson and the like-minded churchmen who helped him launch the Church of England into the education business, more than 200 years ago had a clear vision: every parish should have a school that would teach every local child.

This legacy and history, handed down to the 4700 church schools that can trace their heritage back to Watson’s National Society, is still widely celebrated. Last year, the Archbishop of Canterbury began a debate on schools in the House of Lords by describing Watson as the “best layman in England”.

But, in an age when church schools are funded almost exclusively by the taxpayer, and barely more than one per cent of the population attend an Anglican service each Sunday, what are C of E schools for? Are they primarily there to provide a good education for anyone who wants to join the school community? Or do they exist to promote, instil, and preserve Anglicanism?

At the epicentre of this often heated debate is the question of admissions. Behind the stories of sharp-elbowed atheist parents going through the motions of church attendance for years, to push their child up the waiting list at the parish primary, lies a question of principle: are church schools for all, or for Anglicans first and foremost?


IN THAT same House of Lords debate from December (News, 15 December), Archbishop Welby said that, like Watson, today’s C of E educators are “universalist”.

“The Church of England’s educational offer to our nation is church schools that are, in its own words, ‘deeply Christian’, nurturing the whole child — spiritually, emotionally, mentally as well as academically — yet welcoming the whole community,” he explained. “I have always been against selection by faith.”

The C of E’s chief education officer, Nigel Genders, has emphasised that the schools under his aegis are “not faith schools for the faithful . . . [but] church schools for the community”.

Those working in Anglican education largely say the same. The chief executive of the diocese of London’s multi-academy trust, Liz Wolverson, says that the diocese’s schools should “serve their local communities and represent the children and people who live in that area” over preserving places for children from the nearest parish church.

Colin Hopkins, who recently retired as the diocese of Lichfield’s director of education, considers the C of E position to have always been that its schools are for everybody, and notes that there are dozens of church schools whose pupils are nearly 100 per cent Muslim.

The Revd Brendan Clover, the senior provost of the Woodard Corporation, a family of 46 private and state church schools, dating back to 1848, says that, while this view may not have always held sway in the Church, it is definitely the consensus today.

Anne Davey, the chief executive of Oxford diocese’s academies trust, says that it is a vital part of “Christian witness” for church schools to be as open and welcoming as possible. “In most cases, that mission is best served by not having faith criteria.”


IF A school is not oversubscribed, no admissions criteria can be applied, and each child must, by law, be offered a place. Although oversubscription rates vary, a survey from 2016 suggested that about six in ten schools were forced to apply admissions criteria. The most recent statistics from the Department of Education (DfE), however, show that, at primary level, 91 per cent of children receive an offer from their first-choice school, and 82 per cent at secondary level.

Once a school is oversubscribed, it is allowed to begin ranking those who have applied by a variety of criteria. Although all church schools are exempt from the Equality Act’s prohibitions on religious discrimination (which normally apply to state schools), the different types of church school have slightly different rules when it comes to religious admissions policies.


Read the full feature here.