Praying for a good school: confessions of a fake Anglican

C of E schools came top of the league tables last week, and some parents will do anything to get their child in - including 'finding faith'. Juliet Fitzgerald is one of them
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I always hated church. With a passion. Apart from the fact that it was boring, uncomfortable and smelly (I only learnt to love incense a lot later), it was quite clear to me that all that was coming out of the pulpit was utter clap-trap.

But as you read this, the chances are that I am kneeling dutifully in the pews of my high Victorian church - that's if I've arrived early enough to get a place - chanting responses with the rest of the congregation. Like me, many of my fellow worshippers are in their mid-thirties, and practically all have children under four. An outsider would think that our priest must surely have special bonding powers with harassed young parents.

Despite appearances, however, we are not part of the evangelical revival of the Church of England. We have not been lured here to clap along to guitars and sing hymns in Swahili. In fact, nearly every hymn book conceals a Penguin 60s Classic to prevent us from wailing with boredom at the sermons of the dreariest vicar in London. And if we've come to meet the neighbours, it is with the express purpose of sizing up the cut-throat competition. Because we're all here to pray for a good primary school.

Today, the church is likely to be more packed than usual, as it is the first Sunday after the publication of the primary school league tables. The school attached to this church did substantially better than any other nearby, but then this is a common phenomenon. A glance at the lists will show that in nearly every local education authority, the top school is either C of E or Roman Catholic. No doubt this Sunday, those who have belatedly realised that one has to put a bit of work into getting a good education, will come flooding through the neo-Gothic doors to commence their personal battle.

As with any facet of education, you have to do your homework first. If, on the doorstep, there is a good "county" school, which is a primary funded entirely by the local authority, then you are fortunate. The rules for admission for these schools are cut and dried. Whoever lives closest is given a place, which is why some parents lie about their address, or else move into catchment area. But for those like us who are not prepared to move or fib, but live round the corner from the sort of school that would fit seamlessly into the landscape of the South Bronx, then something else has to be done.

In theory, church primaries have greater latitude as to whom they admit, but they can decide upon their own selection criteria. This usually means that if you live outside the parish, you must prove that you are a "committed Christian family", usually by producing a letter from a vicar. This is where the calculations begin. Most applications for primary school have to be in by the end of this term, and you can see couples with their well- scrubbed children shuffling from foot to foot at the church porch wondering whether they have notched up enough attendance to risk presenting the letter of application to be signed. There are no second chances.

"We have toed the line for six months," said one anxious parent who was nervously chewing the rim of his polystyrene cup of coffee. "But I'm not sure it's enough. Even though we donated pounds 25 to the rewiring fund, we weren't allowed to see what the vicar had written on the form. I rather wished we'd tried for St Saviour's. The vicar there nods everyone through." One very sad couple have only started coming in the last few weeks. "Welcome," we all said through gritted teeth. "Have you just moved into the area?" "Um, no," came the reply. "We've been going to St Christopher's for years. We thought it was a feeder church for All Saints' primary, but it turns out it is on the wrong side of the parish boundary."

As this couple discovered, for places at the very sought-after schools, every place is taken by children who attend the school's church. At Pope John, a Roman Catholic primary in London's Shepherd's Bush, there are so many applications that only families who attend mass every week are considered. "The governors interview every family who apply, about their faith and how they propose to support their children's education," Pamela Singh, the head teacher, was reported to have said. "Two parish priests sit on the panel and so they know if a family is practising."

A more lenient attitude is taken at Our Lady of Victories, a top- performing Roman Catholic primary in Earl's Court. The school requires a baptismal certificate and a letter to be signed by the parish priest, but this is to ensure that they are "in touch" with a church.

"When a child is baptised into the Roman Catholic church," says Mrs Madeline Braiding, "they are to be given all the advantages that the church has to offer, regardless of how their parents behave. It is not for us to ask how many times a month they go to church - 'Judge not lest ye be judged.' But we are a Catholic school and we do interview children and parents to make sure they understand that. In homes where there is no religious faith they will find it hard."

All vicars know that within their flock, there are those who will peel off once their child has a place at a primary. But it is in the nature of the religion to give everyone the benefit of the doubt: after all, these pragmatic churchgoers might find that they enjoy the experience of going to church. Hugh Bateman, who lives in Richmond, used his children's education as an excuse to start going. "I know lots of militant agnostics and to some of them I just couldn't admit going to church for religious reasons. So when I said it was for the kids' education, they gasped with relief. But since I've been going, it has seeped in and I've now been confirmed." Hugh maintains it would have been impossible to keep up his churchgoing if he'd not become interested in it. "Eventually, one would feel a sham."

If anything, my enforced churchgoing has confirmed my agnosticism. But I do have to face up to the moral issue that by paying lip service at my church, I am denying someone else's child a place at the school, someone who might believe in God.

Sitting in hard pews, I have rummaged through my conscience. I don't believe in God, but my son does. He loves going to church, he knows how to pray and he does regard Easter as more than a chocolatefest. We will continue to go to the church when he goes to the school. I think he deserves a place, and I'm quite prepared to be called a hypocrite to give him the chance to make up his own mind."

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