Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Home Front 17 Feb 2006 Catholic Herald

“How would you feel,” a forceful secular friend said, “if your child was ill, and you took him to a hospital, and they turned you away saying the hospital was only for Muslims?”

The resentment of non-Christian parents towards church schools has to be felt to be believed. It is especially strong among London-dwelling, professional non-Christians – exactly the kind of people who make our laws, or are close to those who make our laws, or who meet up socially with the kind of people who make our laws, and nag them over dinner.

Dinner-party wisdom maintains that church schools select pupils from middle class backgrounds: this is believed in the face of the fact that any successful school, of any type, automatically attracts more affluent families.

Dinner-party wisdom responds to the conundrum of how requiring prospective pupils to prove that they go to church can make a school more middle class, when Christianity is so rare among the professional classes, with a vague, “Ah, but it’s the interviews, you see.”

There is no evidence, no academic study, existing to prove that interviews are responsible for any middle-class bias in church schools, if it exists. All the interviews I have ever been involved with seemed to me rather to prove the opposite. The church school interview must be the only educational practice to have been abolished without any proper examination of its purpose, efficacy or fairness.

Since we are now seeing the passing, almost unmarked, of a custom, let me tell you, as a parent who has been on both sides of the fence, what this allegedly abused practice actually amounted to.

You and your child sit down with a teacher who asks your child a series of questions which, if your child goes to church regularly, are a doddle. If your child does not go to church regularly, then he or she will flounder. That’s about it.

Yes, occasionally, other questions – hobbies, other schools applied to – float in. They should not have been allowed to. If the bishops had set down some firm guidelines for interviews instead of cravenly allowing the practice to be abolished, we would still be able to sort out the children who deserve places at faith schools from those who fib for England.

I have never seen interviews used to “catch children out”: on the contrary, I have seen one inspired headteacher use what I later realised was a hypnotherapy technique: she told the child to close her eyes and imagine she was in church, saying responses along with the rest of the congregation. If the responses are there in the child’s memory, they will spring to her lips like magic. If they are not in her memory, they won’t.

By contrast, this year, 11 year olds applying to popular Catholic schools had a written test: they had to complete a couple of Catholic prayers and name some holy days of obligation. Now, it is clear that children who are less confident on paper than in speech are at an instant disadvantage; and no child ever remembers about Corpus Christi. Worst of all, there is no opportunity for the school to check up on the claims parents made in their written forms.

A system based solely on form-filling and reference-hunting plays to middle class strengths, and as a result, the powerful people who want to abolish state-funded faith schools completely will, very soon, be able to claim that “even after reform” the church schools are “still” showing bias to the middle classes, and therefore should have all admissions powers taken from them.

To return to the striking hospital analogy made by my eloquent secular friend. What in fact happens in state education now is more akin to taking your child to a hospital and being told, “We did have the world’s best expert on your child’s condition here last year. But he’s working in the private sector now.”

Unchecked and almost unregulated, private schools continue to drain state schools of their best staff, their language teachers and their more highly motivated families. If the dinner-party sages were to give half the energy they devote to destroying the ethos of faith schools (which actually work) to the task of forcing private schools to share their privileges, education in Britain would have a hope.