Popular with parents, but only Sunday regulars need apply

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The Independent Online

It pays to be up in time for Sunday morning worship in Farnworth, near Bolton.

The Greater Manchester town's finest secondary school, Canon Slade C of E, operates such a strict admissions policy that parents who have not been dragging the children along from the age of four barely need apply. It is a commitment worth making: the A-C pass rate at GCSE is 70 per cent and it has the Government's Beacon mark of excellence.

And then there is St James' C of E secondary, a less academically successful establishment but one that has fought doggedly to preserve its founding Christian principles. The local council planned to close the place 13 years ago but St James' spared itself by becoming only the third school in Britain to opt out of local authority control.

Its Christian ethos played strongly in the bid. It had been there since 1960 when the school was one of 35 in Britain built by "special agreement" with local councils to provide a Christian education to the entire community.

A C of E school in one of the North-west's many multiracial former mill towns sounds rather uncomfortable but ethnically it seems to work. The ethnic minority composition is about 12 per cent (6 per cent Muslim and 6 per cent Hindu) ­ consistent with a 12.9 per cent ethnic minority strand in secondary pupils across Bolton. There are two Christian assemblies per week for all children and religious studies lessons incorporating all faiths.

One mother, a Hindu, said outside the school: "A Christian school appealed to us because the principle seemed safe."

The school's modest 40 per cent A-C pass rate also supports the insistence of the head- teacher, Bob Atkinson, that parental support, not academic ability, dictates selection.

To get their children in, parents need to attend church, mosque or temple once a month at least but application form points are also awarded for evidence of their children's community involvement.

"The fact we select those who are supported by parents is the key defining factor in the kind of pupils we send out into the world," Mr Atkinson said.