Geoffrey Kirk asks whether church First Schools still serve a useful purpose

Church schools are in demand. Every Chair of Governors knows the extent to which parents are prepared to perjure themselves to see their children admitted. He also probably has a list of local clergy who will put their signature to a family record of church attendance which is on the deceitful side of optimistic. Why?

The reasons are not, I think, primarily religious. Indeed, as religious observance has fallen, and church attendance has gone into free fall, demand on places in church First Schools has increased.

Strangely popular

I have been the Chair of Governors of a Voluntary Aided Primary School for twenty-four years and was the chair of the local Admissions Appeals Committee for eleven. Whilst it is true that during that time I have known numbers of committed Christian parents who have been concerned about the religious teaching in the school, it would also be true to say that the majority have shown little or no interest at all. When the annual Governor’s Report to parents is discussed at the statutory meeting (never in itself a lively event, it must be granted) I have never had a single question asked about the Governors’ policy with regard to religious instruction or the discharge of their obligation to ensure a daily act of worship.

Parents want a church school because church schools are, after a fashion, selective. They are perceived to admit – partly as a result of the priority given to church-goers (and Anglicans in particular) – a ‘nicer class’ of children. Some, though by no means all, offer a higher academic and pastoral standard than other local schools. This is often, though not always, related to their small size. One school not far from here is a favourite with middle-class parents whose intention is to give their children private education at secondary level, but who balk at a fee paying preparatory school.

The worry, however, is not primarily about parent’s wishes and expectations for the religious content of their children’s education or the degrees of deception to which they are prepared to go to gain admission, but about the disinclination and disability of the Church itself to provide the religious input to which it appears to be committed.

Critical Mass

The fact is that the Church of England has lost critical mass. Even if it wanted to staff its schools with believing, practising Anglican teachers (and there is serious doubt about that), it could not do so. The active membership figure of the Church of England (in other words, adult Sunday attendance) is now around 870,000 (an average of 67 per parish), with a steep age profile, indicated by a children and young people Sunday attendance of only 170,000 (an average of 9 per parish). Every indicator of church life is on the downturn. Decline from 2001 to 2002 across the board was as follows: infant baptisms by 4%; confirmations by 8%; weddings by 5%; Easter attendance by 8%. The Church of England, nevertheless, administers 25% of all state primary schools, with 18% of all primary pupils.

Such an institution cannot hope to sustain its ‘ethos’ (much less give sound religious instruction) in such a large number of schools. It cannot generate enough Anglican teachers – or even enough practising Anglican head-teachers. The situation is bad now. All statistics indicate that it will worsen. It is only a matter of time before serious questions begin to be asked about the need for, and indeed the viability of, church schools.

Voluntary Aided Schools have a majority of foundation governors on their governing bodies, and set (within certain limits) their own admissions policies. In almost all cases the admissions policies of such schools demand more religious commitment from the parents than is, or could be, demanded of those who will teach their children.

No-one can pretend that this state of affairs is sustainable. Government, of course, is unlikely to raise immediate objections about a system which provides it with a network of schools, largely indistinguishable from the state provision in ethos and ideology, 15% of all capital development of which of which comes from sources not its own. But there are inevitable questions, on the church side, about the expenditure both in time and financial resources, on structures which provide no easily discernable benefit.

Average parish

Imagine a small parish (rural or inner city) with a church school and a Sunday attendance of around 75. (Well over half of the parishes of the Church of England have electoral roles of less than 100.) That parish will need to provide from this ageing pool: two churchwardens; a PCC, Treasurer and Secretary; two deanery synod representatives; and six or seven foundation governors for its school. Such a need for skilled and dedicated service might well be daunting to a much larger church community.

Nor is the post of School Governor any longer a sinecure. These foundation governors, along with their secular colleagues, will be expected to attend Governor Training Sessions, organized by the Diocesan Board of Education or the local authority. They will be required sit on one or more committees of the Governing Body – reviewing, perhaps the head-teacher’s performance and setting his or her objectives. They may be required to sit on an admissions or exclusions panel, a curriculum committee, or a finance committee. The parish priest, if he is elected as Chair of Governors, will be in receipt of a serious burden of detailed literature, all of which must be sifted, read and digested. The Governing Body will, like the school itself, be subject to OFSTED inspection. If they have failed to come up to the expected standards, they will be publicly chastised in the curt prose of an inspector’s report.

All this can be viewed – probably is viewed – as a noble service to the community. In inner city areas it is also probably true that the tiny minority of church-goers is the obvious (and most willing) pool from which such voluntary officers could be recruited. But seldom (apart, perhaps for an annual harvest festival) will children, parents or teachers from the school ever darken the doors of the parish church. Parishes have been able to use, their parish first schools as an evangelistic tool are few and far between, as the statistics go to prove. (It is impossible from the data available to establish what effect the presence of a church First School has on the childrens’ and young people’s attendance figure at the parish church. But I would not hold your breath.)

Fundamental Questions

What church people need to ask, and ask urgently, is whether church schools any longer have a purpose.

What if the resources and energy which are presently expended on maintaining this inflated provision were to be spent on youth work and child evangelism within the parishes or deaneries? The decline in numbers of young people in church-related activities and especially in worship has been precipitate. It is surely to that area that talent and money should be directed.

Would the merging of the parish first school into the full state system make any difference to the life of most parishes? And would the local communities which those schools serve notice the transition? If the answer to both those questions is No (and I suspect that it will be), then there is clearly a case for abandoning a system which is greedy of time and resources, and from which the Church as a whole is seen to benefit very little.

The truth, I suspect, is that our present system is not only not working; it is positively dangerous. It gives Christian people, and the Church at large, the notion that ‘the Church of England has a stake in education’, when in fact that stake is minimal, and is maintained at the expense evangelistic work with children and young people which might reap a real harvest of souls.

Three options

What to do? Three things are possible.

The first would be to abandon the present stake in national education altogether, and to concentrate on more intensive religious education for those parents who truly want it for their children. This might take the form of Saturday Schools, with a judicious mixture of religious instruction and coaching in basic literacy. Such schools, like the secular-run independent Saturday Schools in many inner city areas, might well prove popular. Anyone who has had the misfortune to read undergraduate essays, even in subjects like English and Modern History, will know how urgent is the need to improve the linguistic skills which the State education system still lamentably neglects.

The second would be to abandon the majority of church First Schools in favour of concentrating energies on a small number, which would make no pretence at being ‘neighbourhood schools’; but which would be avowedly Christian and denominational. The Church of England would here be taking its lead from those few, but impressive, Christian private schools which have been founded by parents disaffected with current provision. Such a course of action would not necessarily be unpopular with the wider secular society – consider the fruitful debate about private Muslim schools. Its enemies would almost certainly be establishment liberal Anglicans, by whom any attempt to disseminate Faith rather than doubt is viewed as sinister indoctrination.

The third would be to make over all church First Schools to the state system, but to increase the Church’s stake in teacher training. The aim would be to provide a dedicated task force of Anglican teachers who would influence the state schools by their professional teaching skills as well as by their personal faith and example. Such teachers would need to be integrated in a formal professional organization and resourced from RE Centres in strategic places. The resources of the various trusts established at the closure of Church colleges in the later part of the last century might be marshalled to assist such a project.

My own view is that the first two options are probably still actionable; but that time has run out for the third. The experience of the theological colleges would lead one to suppose that it would no longer be possible to recruit a sufficient number of practising Anglican candidates to fill a single training college on a sustainable basis. The life of the church, moreover is not in its national structures, which are top-heavy and seriously moribund. It is in the parishes where modest initiatives can take root and be sustained.

Past and Future

We have come along way from the heroic days of the beginnings of the Catholic movement, which was in the forefront of Christian education and the establishment of parish schools. In those days in Kennington, in South London, Fr Charles Edward Brooke – a man it needs to be said of great resource and adequate resources – set up a new parish of St John the Divine, provided it with a First School, a secondary school for girls and a teacher training college to provide suitable teachers for both and for the Church at large. Brooke was a visionary; both a pioneer of professional education for women and something of an ecumenist. He opened his college to Christian teachers of other denominations, trusting that the sweetness and light of his college’s cheerful high churchmanship would make many converts. By accounts he was largely successful.

We cannot now afford the expansive gestures of earlier days. We cannot, in truth, even afford what we have got. Whatever is to be done, one thing is certain: that if a radical rethink does not take place in the next fifteen years present arrangements will have degenerated into something approaching farce, and the Church of England itself will have dwindled to such an extent that, in any case, it will be wholly unable to sustain them.

Geoffrey Kirk is the Chair of Governors of St Stephen’s School, Lewisham.