The Church of England is preparing itself for the biggest expansion in religious schooling for 50 years.
A report published yesterday by the church has opened the way for 100 new C of E schools which will go some way to meeting the huge demand for places. Such is the reputation of these schools that requests for places come regardless of whether or not parents are churchgoers.
There is a feeling among parents that a church school will offer discipline and a distinctive moral code. They also see better exam results with the GCSE pass rate in church schools 12 per cent higher than those for local authority-maintained state secondary schools.
But there is a downside to this. With church school heads and school governors being forced to turn away so many children (for every 100 parents whose children are accepted, 60 are turned away), the suspicion has grown that these schools have become representative of the middle classes. Interviews with parents, although frowned on officially by the church, result in churchgoers and possibly children who are thought to be brighter academically being given preference.
The church's own statistics appear to back that up. They show that the number of pupils receiving free school meals (those whose families are on income support) is 20 per cent higher in local authority-maintained schools than their own.
Now, though, the Church of England is hoping that plans to set up 100 more secondary schools within the next eight years will help it shed any image of élitism. It is a massive expansion considering there are only about 150 C of E schools and is rivalled only by a major increase in the number of C of E and Roman Catholic schools in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Lord Dearing, the author of yesterday's report, said he hoped the increase would help make schools more representative of the communities they served. He said: "We have a special duty to take in children with special needs and we want to look for opportunities to meet the wishes of more parents in areas of social hardship. We're saying this may depress your average exam results but take it on the chin, go for it and be brave."
The timing of the church's announcement is deliberate. It has already been given the blessing of the Government in a Green Paper on secondary schools just before the election.
The Green Paper envisaged voluntary groups such as churches sponsoring some of the City Academies it is setting up as centres of excellence in inner-city areas. It also spelt out a role for churches in taking out contracts to run failing schools and helping turn them round.
The report said: "Perhaps as never before in 50 years, the church has a great opportunity to pursue and develop its mission to the nation through its schools."
The church has set up a campaigns fund to raise the £25m it believes is necessary to meet its 10 per cent share of the cost of establishing the new schools. The rest of the money will come from public funds.
Lord Dearing said of the fund-raising campaign: "We're not making an appeal directly to the parishes because we know there are other demands on them. We see the money coming from charitable bodies, companies and other people of considerable net worth."
Canon John Hall, general secretary of the Church of England's board of education, said discussions were already under way to set up 20 new church schools in different parts of the country. These include two new City Academies one in Haringey, north London, the other in Liverpool and several new schools. Parents in Islington, north London, have voted for the setting up of the first C of E secondary school in the borough.
The drive for more church schools is not without its opponents, though.
Keith Porteous-Wood, of the National Secular Society, predicts members of other faiths Roman Catholics, Muslims and Jews will also want to increase the number of schools they run. The Green Paper also opens the door to them to put in bids. He said: "It will mean children going from quite restricted home backgrounds to restricted schools. It could create more racial tensions at a time when we should be seeing more growing together."
Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, said: "The recent scenes in Oldham have demonstrated the importance of bringing understanding between different faiths and communities. Schools should play a key role in this."
Teachers' leaders are also worried about the expansion plans. Peter Smith, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: "There is a very strong argument that religious belief is a private belief not a state issue. It is truly amazing how many people develop strong religious beliefs if they think that the best school to send their child to in the area is the 'faith school'."
But the Government is welcoming the Church of England's expansion plans. A spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Skills said: "We agree that church schools are a distinctive element in the provision of education. We're sympathetic to the arguments for increasing the number of C of E secondary schools in response to parental demands."Reuse content