The Bishop of Oxford solicited widespread and varied reactions when on Good Friday the TES published an article in which he expressed his desire to see the number of places reserved for children from church-going families in Church of England Schools limited to 10%. Some, especially secularists, saw this as a positive move away from discrimination on religious grounds. At the other end of the spectrum, he was criticised by those who see Church of England schools as a safe place for children of Christian families to be educated, who see the main purpose of these schools as to serve the church community.
The strategy and sentiment behind the Bishops’ comments are not radical or new. In 2001 the Church of England report The Way Ahead said that C of E Schools should be at the heart of the Church’s mission and should serve the wider community by providing non-church-going children with the opportunity to experience a faith community and learn under a Christian ethos. The more places given to non-church-going families, the greater number of people would encounter the Church. However, critics of this policy fear that reduced numbers of children from church-going families will mean that church schools will be unable to retain their distinctive Christian ethos. They also fear that the excellent results of these schools will be affected by a change in selection criteria, something that the Bishop himself expressed, but brushed off as less important than the inclusive mission of these schools.
Although this debate is specific to Church of England schools, the same question about selection criteria can be applied to all voluntary aided, or even independent, Christian schools. What should they be, and whom should they serve? Independent schools are the easiest to analyse, being free of government restraints on admission procedures. Schools such as the Christian Schools’ Trust schools tend to operate a policy of giving priority to children from Christian families. Their goal is to provide a school where children from Christian families can grow up and be taught under Christian leaders, with a focus on God’s word and the development of godliness. Other schools operate an open selection policy in terms of faith, yet end up being largely self selecting due to word of mouth within the Christian community and lack of demand from outside that community. State funded schools are more complicated. If a school is performing well in terms of grades then parents would often seek to send their children there regardless of its ethos and religion, as long as its ethos was seen as benign. Church of England schools tend to fit into this bracket: they are seen as harmless, on top of which, many parents who are not believers would count themselves as Church of England due to family heritage.
What makes a school Christian? And what should the role of a Christian school be? If a school is Christian because its staff and governors are Christian and it places an emphasis on Christian teaching, ethics, and morality then the faith demographic of the pupil population should not matter. If, however, for a school to be Christian it needs to operate within the community of the church, and if a school needs its pupils to come from Christian families in order to maintain an ethos, then the pupil demographic is of great importance. Can having a Christian head teacher maintain a school in its Christian distinctiveness regardless of the faith of the other staff and the pupils? The Way Ahead suggests that ensuring that head teachers are Christians is the first step to restoring the Christian distinctiveness of Church of England school. It then emphasises the importance of inclusivity and outreach to the wider community. For Church of England schools to fulfil the mission and role outlined in Church of England policy they need to have a large intake of those from outside the Church. However, for schools such as the Christian Schools’ Trust schools to fulfil their mission, they need to restrict admission in order to support the Christian community they seek to serve. The difference comes down to whether a Christian school should mirror the church, or whether it should be a venue through which the church is able to serve the wider community and ‘seek the welfare of the city’. It seems that there are benefits to each strategy, and perhaps the answer is that there should be some of each. However, it is unquestionable that a school can only be Christian if the leadership are committed Christians seeking to honour God and glorify Christ in their every decision.