Church school admissions – are we making the wrong assumptions?

Two weeks ago we highlighted an article on Twitter written by education writer Fiona Millar reporting concerns expressed by the Archbishop of Canterbury about inclusivity within some Church of England schools. The tweet was followed up with a link to one of our posts from last year on how well Brentwood’s faith schools appeared to reflect the communities in which they are located. (“How inclusive are Brentwood’s schools?” http://wp.me/p2dr6s-6x )

IMG_0747Several responses sprang from it but I was particularly struck by the contributions from Chris Beazley, the Headteacher of St Mary’s CEVA Primary in Shenfield. He felt that it was unfair to link the two pieces as it implied that none of Brentwood’s Church schools sought inclusivity in their admissions. Furthermore, he questioned the statistics presented regarding the social make up of people in the school’s vicinity.

I have reflected on his comments since then regarding the specifics of this issue but also more broadly and I think he raises valuable questions which could lead us to address the subject of inclusivity in our town’s schools more constructively.

Fiona Millar’s Guardian piece, “Justin Welby is right – faith should not affect a child’s education”, can be accessed via the link below:

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2013/nov/14/justin-welby-faith-child-education-british-schools

Ms Millar is clear that Church schools are not by default unrepresentative of their locality but some admissions policies lead to selection that, intended or not, filters out the less well off. She explains:

“Many faith schools are inclusive and play an important part in their local communities, whereas others don’t.”

“In the past two years, important research by the Guardian and the BHA has flagged up the extent to which faith schools either shut out poorer children or contribute to racial segregation. Often this is done by using the freedoms they have been given on admissions, plus a series of convoluted “faith tests” that enable them to trawl a much wider area for their applicants, effectively socially selecting the pupils most likely to succeed and ensuring that their success is a self-fulfilling prophesy.”

What interests me about this statement, and Mr Beazley’s comments, is how we define the community that is served and how do admissions policies best ensure that the children in that community are catered for?IMG_0746

Brentwood is particularly interesting in that context as we have many villages that make up the district as well as distinct areas such as Shenfield, Warley, Ingatestone and Hutton. We have 24 primary schools listed on the Essex County Council (ECC) website, 13 of which were established as faith schools (3 Catholic and 10 Church of England). Of those, 11 set their own admissions criteria.

At Chris Beazley’s suggestion, I have read the admissions policy for each of the 24 schools, all of which are available via this link to the ECC South Essex primary school brochure:

http://www.essex.gov.uk/Education-Schools/Schools/Admissions/Documents/SE-WEB.pdf

Having done so I believe that he is right to say that raw statistics on locality and the uptake of free school meals (FSM) do not provide a wholly accurate picture of the inclusivity of schools in our town. It has also caused me to challenge some assumptions that are often made when raising this subject.

There are those who, perfectly legitimately, believe that there should not be any faith schools. I understand their argument and, were we starting completely afresh, I would have some sympathy with it, however schools were established by the Church at a time when the state saw no obligation to and many have a distinguished history and well founded reputation within their communities. Where the community is still well served I believe it serves little purpose to end that provision.

I think it is instructive to look at the locations of most of Brentwood’s Church schools to give a clue as to their original establishment and purpose. Most are located in the distinctive areas of Brentwood away from the town centre: Bentley, Ingrave, Mountnessing, Shenfield and South Weald. Indeed in Doddinghurst and Ingatestone, Junior schools formed originally by the Church of England, are paired with community infants schools.

The catchment areas for these schools are largely based on the historical parishes of their neighbouring church and this does often differ from the post codes which have been used in the FSM comparative for example. Chris Beazley’s questioning of the statistics should be seen in that context and this is reflected in the admissions policies of several of our schools.

IMG_0748St Mary’s, Shenfield and St Peter’s in South Weald are interesting examples as their policy criteria clearly favours residents, Christian or not, within their defined parishes over those from further afield who attend church.  It can therefore be argued that  these schools are identified with a distinct community which is reflected in their policies.

So do we have a problem in Brentwood at all? Are there significant numbers of people who want to send their children to Church schools and are being prevented from doing so by their admissions policies?

I have to say that I am unconvinced about this but frankly there is little evidence to go on. The only information provided by ECC is about the numbers applying for entry during the previous year. As there is no indication of what preferences these are, all 24 schools could claim to be oversubscribed.

We are wonderfully served by our primaries, 22 are currently rated “good” or “outstanding” by Ofsted, so the lazy shorthand that only Church schools are good schools is plainly nonsense.

And yet we are all familiar with the phenomenon of “temporary Christianity” and, as Fiona Millar identifies, admission policy prescriptions of what “regular attendance” amounts to. This assumes high demand for places in these schools otherwise why would they be set? Or maybe we are making the wrong assumptions about their existence?

We must remember that the governors in schools are responsible for the tone and content of their policies, any changes now have to be approved by the Schools Adjudicator, and for me providing a good education to the children of the local community should be the primary objective. Indeed, in my view, any other objective should not be the beneficiary of state funding.

This is why I question any admissions policy that discriminates against local people at the expense of those from further afield. I have found a minority of schools in Brentwood that seem to do just that. I cannot see how any school can claim to serve their local community when attendees of any Christian Church (even those outside of Brentwood) are placed higher in the criteria than siblings and local non-Christians.

Which is why I challenge a final assumption, that this is to “ensure success”. It smacks to me instead of getting bums on church pews.

Because we are not party to the numbers of applicants who apply to schools under church attendance criteria we cannot know if “you need to go to Church for a couple of years to get in” to a certain school. But as long as there are sufficient people who believe that Church schools are “better” than their community counterparts, then the myth persists.

I believe passionately that good local schools should be available to all and, as a consequence, should be the default choice of most parents. The benefits to us all of this are pretty obvious, not least environmentally.

I also think that the best route to do this is to give support to all our of our schools, no matter what their genesis, celebrate their achievements and promote collaboration to share best practice. I would welcome any suggestions about how the community at large can play their part too.

I see admissions policies as a statement of intent that should demonstrate a commitment to the local community and inclusivity. I have acknowledged Church schools that, I believe, can claim to do so. I would suggest to Justin Welby and his counterparts that these may be used to inform those boards of governors who give the impression that they are more concerned with recruitment than continuing the long standing commitment to serve the community.

Stephen Mayo

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Comments

  1. Good to see you covering this important issue which is already being hotly debated in some other areas that I have links to.

    Here are some letters from Richmond, where the LA’s recent establishment of a near 100% selective Catholic school, and ferocious competition for local primary school places has put a local campaign group at the forefront of the debate, with support from fair minded people of all religions and none:

    Reply

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