Education: A learning experience that's beyond belief: Will the chance to opt out be a new beginning for church schools, or the beginning of the end? Judith Judd reports

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The Independent Online
CHURCH schools are discovering a new sense of mission. After 30 years in which they played down their differences with county schools, they are preparing to market their distinctive ethos.

The Anglicans, who run nearly a quarter of the state schools in England and Wales, have just produced a handbook of Church of England schools, prepared a guide on aims and management for their heads and governors, and are even considering setting up their own inspectorate under the Government's plans to privatise school inspection.

The Rev Dr John Gay, of the Culham College Institute for church-related education, says: 'For many years, the philosophy has been that church schools really ought to look like maintained schools. Recently, they have begun to play up their distinctiveness.'

The Church of England's caution about emphasising the Anglican character of its schools is based on its long tradition of serving both the local community and members of the faith. More than a third of primary schools are Anglican and in some villages the church school may be the only one.

Some Anglican schools - particularly those in inner-city areas - have a majority of Muslim pupils. Many Muslim parents feel a church school will provide a more ethical and moral education than a secular one. But tensions can still arise. At Slough and Eton Church of England School, in Slough, Berkshire, 98 per cent of pupils are Asian. A thousand parents and members of the Asian community have signed a petition accusing teachers of racism and complaining that their culture is being devalued. They were angered by the governors' failure to appoint a Muslim headteacher and want equal representation on the governing board.

Being a church school does not necessarily mean religious education and worship receive more attention. Research in the Eighties showed that schools fully run by local authorities often paid more attention to religious education.

By contrast, until recently, Roman Catholic schools were thought to be much closer to their church. It was assumed their pupils and teachers were almost entirely Catholic. But earlier this year a report from the Arundel and Brighton diocese in Sussex showed that Catholic schools were admitting 'an ever-increasing proportion of non-Catholic pupils'. In secondary schools, 29 per cent of pupils were non-Catholic.

Catholics, too, are rethinking the role of their 2,200 schools. Voluntary-aided church schools, both Catholic and Anglican, have to find 15 per cent of their capital costs (major building and equipment spending); government pays the rest. Cardinal Basil Hume, the Archbishop of Westminster, told a conference last month: 'I do not believe we can justify all the effort and expense involved in preserving and running our Catholic schools unless all immediately concerned - governors, teaching staff, parents and pupils - embrace wholeheartedly the ideals of Catholic education and strive to realise those in the day-to-day conduct of the school.'

The debate has been fuelled by Muslim demands for their own voluntary- aided schools. John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, has been told by the High Court to look again at the Government's refusal to grant voluntary-aided status to the Islamia primary school in Brent, north London.

Last week's education White Paper opened the door to Muslim and evangelical schools by allowing voluntary groups to apply to set up new grant- maintained schools. All they will need to do is prove that there is a need for additional school places in their area, and then raise 15 per cent of any initial capital costs. Thereafter, they will be funded like any other opted-out school.

The challenge posed by Muslims for their own aided schools, however, poses a sharp dilemma for politicians and educationists. Graham Lane, of the Socialist Education Association, says the only logical alternative to allowing Muslim schools is to integrate all church schools into the mainstream. 'If Muslim schools get aided status, that will force the issue of the existence of church schools on to the agenda, particularly if the Government then allows a series of evangelical Christian and Seventh-day Adventist schools,' he says.

Professor Peter Mortimore, deputy director of the Institute of Education, in London, whose study of junior schools showed that church schools tended to be more effective than their maintained counterparts, says: 'I am anxious about Muslim schools because of their exclusivity and their attitude to girls, but I am also anxious about getting rid of church schools that have proved themselves.'

However, few politicians would dare abolish church schools, given their popularity with parents. The Conservative Carlton Club argued last year that 'a radical review of the disproportionate influence of the Church and charitable trusts in the administration of the educational system is long overdue.'

That report was produced under Sir Norman Fowler, now Conservative Party chairman, but there is no prospect of Mr Patten taking the running of church schools away from the churches altogether. Marie-Clare, his young daughter, attends a Catholic school; and his White Paper made it clear that he wanted to strengthen church schools, to enlist their help in the fight against materialism and indiscipline.

Yet one of the Government's policies may have the opposite effect. Opted- out schools receive all their funds from government, not just 85 per cent. The Roman Catholic bishops have written to Mr Patten expressing fears that the Church will gradually lose its influence over schools that opt out. Some Anglicans disagree, arguing that grant-maintained schools will turn to their dioceses for help once they no longer have ties with the local authority, and their characters will be reinforced rather than weakened. Others are less optimistic. Priscilla Chadwick, vice-dean of the education department at Southbank University and a former Church of England secondary school head in London, says many dioceses have neither the staff nor the resources to bolster church schools. If large numbers of church schools opt out, she says, there is a danger that the system of church schools set up under the 1944 Education Act will be undermined and their independence from central government will be compromised. The future role for many church schools, therefore, looks alarmingly unclear.

----------------------------------------------------------------- Number of Church Schools ----------------------------------------------------------------- (Figures include primary and secondary) Church of England 4,903 Roman Catholic 2,220 Jewish 22 Methodist 31 Other voluntary 214 Other state schools 15,504 ----------------------------------------------------------------- There are 1,618,950 pupils in church schools (voluntary- controlled and voluntary-aided) out of a total of 6,768,081 pupils altogether (figures all Jan 1991, England and Wales). -----------------------------------------------------------------

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