Friday, July 13, 2007


Faith schools are the solution – not the problem
Sarah Johnson
July 2007

  • The desire to do the best for one's child is a powerful biological urge.
  • This natural parental ambition is treated by traditional socialist educationalists as a perverted tendency to be thwarted by measures which drive more parents into the private sector. Non-socialists have accepted the socialist model of state education: "You, the parents, give us, the Government, your children - and WE decide which school they go to." Most parents, who do not have money for private fees, feel humiliated and disempowered when it comes to helping their child into a better school.
  • One measure of a successful school is the degree of committment and voluntary involvement among the parents.
  • In oversubscribed faith schools, points are added to the child's application if the parent/parents and child are involved in voluntary parish activities.
  • The effect of this is to motivate parents into getting involved in their parish with often spectacularly beneficial results for the whole community: the elderly, the young, the homeless etc.
  • Giving time to voluntary activites is a choice which is genuinely open to all.
  • I notice that if families can "add value" to their school applications through parish involvement, it gives poorer families a chance to compete for places on equal terms with middle class families.
  • I conclude that it is much fairer than other forms of selection e.g. selection by postal address, aptitude or - surely the unfairest of all - by lottery.
  • The faith-school model could be translated to the secular school system, in the case of over-subscribed secondary schools, by allowing parents to add value to their applications for places by providing proof of voluntary work in the local community.
  • Appropriate checks and balances would enable this to be a system which allowed all parents to compete for places in a fair way, taking into account disabilities and other limiting factors. Checks and balances would also be required to prevent fraud. The framework for such checks and balances and the experience of dealing with a "value-added" admissions system fairly already exists within the faith school model.
  • Thus the energy of parental ambition would be channelled directly into benefiting the community. An ethos which values community involvement and the giving of time to others would be re-established or strengthened. Community cohesion would improve radically as more parents felt motivated to get involved. Children of all abilities and income brackets would have an equal chance.
  • At under-subscribed schools, the effect of the value-added admissions system at neighbouring oversubscribed schools would also be felt. Families who failed to win places at the oversubscribed school would bring their volunteering ethos into the undersubscribed school and, if adequately supported by staff, would set an example of being more committed and involved in school life.

Our recently retired primary school headteacher, Madeline Brading, is a fairly formidable person. When she wears her most headmistressy expression, generations of children have learned, you are in trouble. So when our chair of Governors invited her to the Christmas dinner at the local Conservative Association, she should have anticipated some trouble when it turned out that the guest of honour was a senior Tory education spokesman.

The real problem with education in the UK today, said this senior Tory, was not discipline, not spending, not the lack of individual power given to individual heads to do as they wish with their own schools (as private school heads are free to do), not any of these, but - faith schools. Faith schools were the real problem, and, she implied, should be abolished.

My chair of governors became aware of a kind of angry vibration going on in the region of her right hand side, where Mrs Brading was sitting. After the senior Tory had sat down, there was a smattering of dutiful but weak applause. Then Mrs Brading stood up.

“I am the head of a school which has the best results in the borough,” she said. “We have the best attendance records and are consistently praised for our teaching and organisation. More than half our pupils do not have English as their first language. We have our fair share of children receiving free school meals.

“I am rather taken aback,” she wound up frostily, “to be told that I am the problem.”

And with a face like a thundercloud she sat down - to an uproarious ovation.

The hostility of the present Conservative Party to our faith schools is dismaying. By failing to support faith schools when they are under attack , the Conservative Party seems to have been led into some ideological traps. In fact I have counted no fewer than five very twisty and dead-end garden paths, down which the Party appears to have been led. All at once.

The most obvious trap is that it is politically inept at the most basic level: as Mrs Brading found, faith schools, in particular, voluntary aided Christian schools, are well-loved in Tory heartlands and the party faithful do not like seeing them being attacked or bullied.

Secondly, this hostility is moral cowardice: faith schools have been the guardians of all that is good in the state system for decades. The very first schools for the poor were founded by the Church as a way of fulfilling Christ’s call to care for the poor and the young. Faith schools, and in particular Church schools of all denominations, deserve some protection at the very least as a thank-you for starting the whole idea of education for all.

The third garden path, or ideological trap, takes the form of an erroneous and misinformed image of the pupils who attend faith schools, and the families they belong to – typified by a classic Boris Johnson (Eton) remark that people whose children go to church schools are “pretending to be religious”. It is clearly beyond Boris’s imagination that there is a significant minority of parents in this country who actually are religious and who sincerely want a faith-based education for their children, and are devastated when they are unable to obtain one. It is also perhaps hard for Boris Johnson to comprehend that some of these devout people might not be rich enough to send their children to Eton or even to Ampleforth, and therefore have a need which is answered by state-aided faith schools.

Fourthly, the term “faith school” is being used by an influential and powerful secular lobby to lasso together schools and establishments of very disparate nature and of different creeds: the most inclusive, anyone-can-come-along type of Church of England school, the kind of highly over-subscribed Catholic schools my own children attend, and the kind of very ideological schools which a small minority of Muslim parents would like, but which are anathema to the British establishment and to the liberal British conscience. This is the garden path down which the former Education Secretary (and great centraliser) Lord Baker led the Conservative Party in his attempt to water down faith schools’ admissions policies on the spurious grounds that faith schools "increase divisiveness" in society when a close and unprejudiced inspection of them reveals that they do the opposite. It is as much a fallacy that all faith schools are equally divisive as that terrorism is as likely to be spawned at your local C of E primary school as in a secret Al Qaeda training camp.

The fifth garden path involves looking at the problem from the wrong end of the telescope. Instead of examining why and how the schools work, and how their structure has come to be so successful, the Conservative Party has, like the Labour Party, been listening only to the disgruntled voices of people who cannot get their children into them (i.e. the London chattering classes). Instead of looking at the whole range of social effects of the faith schools admissions system as they affect people who practice the faith concerned, we see the problem as purely a matter of making it easier for non-faith people to get into faith schools – a trend which, incidentally, makes it harder for families of faith to win places at the very schools which were founded for their benefit.

I want to focus on the third and fifth garden paths. Firstly, what kind of people really do succeed in getting their children into faith schools? Are they entirely composed of mendacious and cynical middle class parents “pretending to be religious”? And secondly – instead of regarding faith schools as anomalous and irrelevant, can society not learn something from the way the most over-subscribed faith schools choose their pupils? Are faith schools really the solution, not the problem?

Who really gets their child into a faith school?

The Labour government has removed the right to interview applicants for places at our schools because there was a “perception” (to use the modern usage of that word to mean precisely the opposite of what it originally meant) that this interview was abused. I wonder how many major changes are instituted in, say, health or defence policy because of a “perception”. No academic study was ever carried out to test this “perception”; no serious attempt has ever been made to interview and analyse the hundreds of school heads and governors who have been conducting these interviews and making these admissions decisions for years.

As a veteran of such interviews myself, on both sides of the interview desk, I very much doubt they were ever much used to weed out the imagined shiftless working class. Instead, I have seen them to be highly effective in unmasking the ingenious and mendacious middle-class applicant who is adept at stretching the truth when filling in forms. Now that schools have lost that additional tool of the face-to-face interview, these parents are finding it easier to elbow aside devout, but less educationally advantaged parents, with weaker English.

Much is made of the fact that faith schools have a lower than average proportion of children receiving free school meals. I would like to question: how does this particular indicator take account of the kind of proud, hard-working working-class or self-employed families, or families who are unable to rake in double incomes because of commitments or disability – families who, though poor or nearly poor, would rather die than sign up for free school meals?

For these are the families most likely to be found in voluntary aided faith schools – the proud and self-sufficient, or would-be self-sufficient. It is these families, the backbone of any society, who are attacked, whenever faith schools are attacked. It is these families who are always overlooked, undervalued and taken to the cleaners in the brutal rat-race which is our comprehensive system.

It is generally acknowledged that what makes a good school, ultimately, is the type of family which sends children there, and, almost as importantly, the kind of people who want to send their children there. In other words, admissions are everything. Change the admissions system and you change the school.

To win a place at a faith school you do not have to be clever, as you do to get into a grammar school. (My own third child "bombed" in his school’s academic banding test and would certainly have failed an 11-plus. Yet, because he is at a faith school with a strong yet flexible setting system, he has already begun working his way up through the school and is determined not to stop until he gets to first or second set. Only in a comprehensive school could he have that hope.)

You do not have to be rich to get into faith schools. Ten percent of children now go to private schools, pouring millions of pounds of post-tax earned income into a comfortably profitable industry which still, bafflingly, retains charitable status. Every time a motivated, ambitious parent chooses a private school for their child, then that is another driving force lost to the state sector, another person who could be bringing their energy and determination to a state school, asking awkward questions, running activities, raising funds or simply supporting the homework policy.

And, to get into a faith school, you do not have to occupy an address in the smartest suburb of town, as close to the school as possible. This is notoriously the case at the best-performing community comprehensive schools. Sometimes the inequity between the best and the worst comprehensives is described by the media as “postcode lottery”. Fiddlesticks. There is no lottery about it. You simply need to be able to afford a monster mortgage. One of the top comprehensives, Henrietta Barnett, is in the heart of Hampstead Garden Suburb. QED.

And to get into a faith school, there is a set of pre-agreed criteria that need to be met in order to qualify: a stark contrast with the insulting lottery system recently introduced in Bristol, reducing children's futures to the level of raffle prizes.

Let me describe what you have to do to get into the faith schools with which I am most familiar, the Catholic schools in my bit of London. Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School, Sacred Heart Hammersmith, the London Oratory School, Gumley House or St Thomas More, Chelsea are all heavily over-subscribed schools. The first thing you need to do to get in is this: get up on Sunday mornings and go to church.

There is no way round it, and the system is well guarded against deception. (Contrary to another popular myth, the schools are not interested in allowing people in just because they have a great-aunt who was a nun.)

You may be a baptised Catholic already, but if you are not practising, you are unlikely to get a place at these schools (unless of course, the child is in care, which, as is fair, gives you clear priority). These schools are heavily oversubscribed, and as Catholicism is a world religion, relatively few of the pupils are white, middle-class and English speaking.

So what is the immediate effect of this requirement, do you suppose? The first effect is to make parents take their Catholic obligation to attend Mass weekly with their children a bit more seriously.

And because the schools are so over-subscribed (if there had been real improvement in the other schools in London over the past ten years, then this over-subscription would surely be waning by know) the admissions committee has to choose between a lot of equally regularly practising candidates, so generally a points system is used, by which families add value to their application through volunteering in the parish. It can be anything from catechism classes to running the old people’s tea afternoon.

So our churches are full. When people go to church they get to meet each other and begin to build support networks with each other. And not only are our churches full, but we have parents who are willing to help with church activities which benefit others, because they want to add value to their child’s education chances.

“I would not be driving the old people’s minibus twice a month,” said one father of a ten year old to me recently, “if it weren’t for the fact that I have to think about what I do for the parish in order to get my son into That School. Otherwise, I just would not be bothered. But as it is, I have to bother - and I really rather enjoy it.”

By volunteering to help with activities, these parents, who probably otherwise would never have found time for any voluntary work, get to know each other even better, they form further networks and support groups on an informal, friendly basis. This is how strong communities are formed. If you had seen the support network for one young couple in our congregation who tragically lost their three year old son on holiday, you would know what I mean. Think, too, of how the McCann family have been shored up in their grief by their church community.

The perception that faith schools are dominated by the middle classes does a great disservice to the many supportive parents I know from non-middle class backgrounds at all but who are still perfectly capable of (a) getting up early on Sunday morning and getting their children to and (c) helping out at a parish toddler’s group or a school cake sale. There is something particularly repugnant about the notion that only middle class “yummy mummies” can cope with these duties. I have the anecdotal impression that this kind of admissions system - in practice - ever so slightly favours parents in lower-grade employment, with regular working hours (who can commit to a regular voluntary job) over jet-setting high-flyers.

I repeat: the beauty of the faith school is that you do not need to be clever, or rich, or live in a house at the expensive end of the most expensive street in town to get in. You simply need to be in agreement with the underlying philosophy of the school and be prepared to show your commitment to it. In most faith schools, that commitment is deemed to be shown by religious practice; but in the most oversubscribed ones the practice traditionally has to be accompanied by some act of voluntary parish involvement from which, in the long run, the whole community benefits, and which creates a parent body with a highly developed community spirit.

Can the faith school model, far from being the problem, in fact become the solution for secular state schools?

I always understood that one of the principles behind free-market theory was that it was possible, and morally right, to harness the powerful driving forces within individual human beings so that they work for the wider good. So, says any version of responsible free market theory, we encourage the entrepreneur’s powerful desire to take risks and enrich himself, because if he succeeds, his success will provide more jobs and prosperity for many others.

It is a fact universally acknowledged that parents will do anything, anything, ANYTHING to get their children in to a good school. We have all heard – especially in the capital - of the parents who tell lies that would turn a criminal defence lawyer pale, who rent flats near to the school for six months and then move back to their home on the other side of town the day after the school place is assured, who try to stuff brown envelopes of cash into the headteacher's handbag. We have all heard these stories, pursed our lips and shaken our heads like Victorian spinsters who would never, never dream of doing anything so shocking.

The desire of parents to win a good school place for their child is a powerful behavioural driver. It is part of our biology. We are wired up to do our best for our children and we just can’t seem to help ourselves.

For decades, the Conservative Party has weakly accepted the prim Victorian-spinster model of state education which the socialists have handed down to them. This model assumes that the purpose of schools is to be receptacles for children in which they learn. Parental ambition plays no part in this model – the parents get into trouble if they don’t send their children to school, and that’s an end of it.

And if parents dare be so naughty as to want to get their children into schools with a better reputation than the one allocated, then - under the neighbourhood comprehensive school system - they have their wrists slapped. Or they are told they are bad, bad middle-class parents because they've spent a bit of extra money on boosting their child's chances of a grammar school place. And many, annoyed, insulted and disheartened by the wrist-slapping, give the whole thing up, take out a second mortgage and start on the school fees treadmill instead.

The Labour Party’s attitude to that elemental force which we call parental ambition has always been to find ways of thwarting it, squashing it and punishing it, because it is seen as unfair to those children whose parents lack it. The hypocrisy of this standpoint, coming as it so often is from wealthy individuals who have carefully planned the purchase of expensive homes a few streets away from the best school in the area, is well known and too nauseating to go into.

But why not wire this power station of parental ambition up to the National Grid, so to speak, instead of being left to throb resentfully on its own? Why not use it for the public good, instead of, like the Victorian spinster whom Prime Minister Gordon Brown sometimes so arrestingly resembles, pretending it is an embarrassing native urge not to be talked about and to be suppressed? Is it not time to harness this powerful drive to work for society, instead of trying to suppress it?

Is it not time to look at how faith schools really work, and why they work, and see how that mechanism can be applied to work for non-faith schools and for the communities they serve?

When a family makes up its mind to try to get a place at an oversubscribed faith school, then the voluntary work they do, and the commitment they make to the school’s philosophy, work not only to the advantage of their child but benefit the community as a whole in the form of the time and skill given. Parental ambition is harnessed for the good of the many, as the remarks of the father quoted above indicate. I don’t know if anybody planned things this way, but it’s what happens, and it is a good thing. We need more of it, not less.

Nobody would deny that many communities lack involvement by the people who live in them. The greater the number of people able and willing to help, the better things are for everyone, especially for those who need the help.

But you cannot force people to be willing to help; and the volunteer sector never finds it easy to attract recruits. The high cost of living, the dominance of the two-income family and the present Government’s drive to send mothers of young children into the workplace have combined to whittle away at the volunteer pool. Lots of people would like to volunteer, or say they would when asked – they just don’t have the time. Reading the voluntary sector’s own publications reveals a continual obsession with the problem of attracting volunteers.

Suppose the neighbourhood comprehensive schools in one area were to copy the faith school model, by allowing parents to accrue admissions points for community or voluntary service? So, a parent who did a year or two as a youth leader, volunteering in a day centre or even just helping out in a charity shop for a few hours a month, would have the satisfaction of knowing they had done something not only for the community but also have added value to their child’s school application.

The system would have checks and balances in place to ensure that looked-after children were not disadvantaged, nor the children of parents for whom mental/physical incapacity prevented them from volunteering. These checks and balances already exist in the admissions criteria of faith schools, where looked-after and special needs children are automatically at the head of the queue for places.

Imagine the difference this change would make in the community. Suddenly parents who had previously been too busy to offer their talents to local voluntary organisations would feel powerfully motivated to do so. Most would find this inner motivation turns out to be the “kick” they need to use and enjoy their talents in a new, satisfying way. They begin to enjoy themselves. Meanwhile, the community as a whole benefits from this injection of willing volunteers.

Of course, some parents would be looking for ways of getting round these criteria, faking references and so on. So: no change there then. Admissions committees and forums are already very familiar with these tactics and are well placed to think up ways of blocking them.

Because some parents have more time available than others, it would be probably fair to cap the number of school admissions points that could be accrued by voluntary service. Individual schools are best placed to determine exactly how their own value added admissions system would operate. Our local over-subscribed Catholic schools only regard volunteer activity at parish level as relevant; membership of national organisations and committees is disregarded. This limitation focusses the attention of parents on the needs of their local parish. The same local criteria could be adapted to the secular sphere.

It would also be necessary to draw up a list of approved local voluntary organisations. It would be up to the schools themselves to do this – some would make foolish judgements, others would make wise ones and there would need to be a regulatory body judging them. The ability to make foolish choices is surely the just price of a devolved education system.

What of under-subscribed schools? In every area there are one or two schools which everyone would like to get their kids into and several others not nearly so popular. It is these, the "bog-standard comprehensives", which, it might be objected, could suffer from the value-added admissions scheme which would cream off the more committed families.

My answer would be: firstly, it should be up to individual schools, possibly co-operating through their schools admissions forums, to use the value-added admissions scheme to the best advantage. If it applied to all schools across an area, it could have the effect of introducing a new ethos of voluntary involvement into under-subscribed schools.

Secondaly, families who failed to win places at the oversubscribed school would bring their new volunteering ethos into the undersubscribed school and, if adequately supported by staff, would set an example of being more committed and involved in school life.

In other words, once parents feel they have to work for a good school place, they are inclined to value it more. But if despite their best efforts they have failed to win places at the "favourite" school then I think it very probably that they will be more inclined to question vigorously what goes on in the less popular school; to question its ethos and standards; and most importantly, to offer their own energies towards improving it.

Most significantly, with the value-added admissions scheme, the desire to do something to help one’s child get into a good state school would no longer be seen as something akin to a criminal urge. This would not only be a major ideological break with the stultifying grip which old-fashioned top-down socialism still maintains on our state schools; it would also be a practical and positive change, benefiting the whole community far beyond the confines of the school gates.

As the benefits of this ethos begin to take root, schools would begin to improve in the only way which can really work - by parent-power. Only this time it is not the "parent power" of the 80s (which meant merely "parent choice" and nothing more) but a process of harnessing the powerful urge most parents have to do something which will help their child get a better education.

So I would like to ask the Conservatives to consider re-examining the faith school system from this different standpoint. Ask yourselves not how you can get rid of the faith schools, but how you can use their model for the whole comprehensive school system by imitating its admissions system and using value-added admissions as a way of boosting the voluntary sector on a local level. Parents have an overwhelming desire to get their children into the school of their choice. Use it.


Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Clap hands everybody

Catholic Herald 19/1/07

In his book “What is the point of Being a Christian?” Fr Timothy Radcliffe tells of how the “terrifying and irascible” Archbishop of Birmingham of the late 1960s, George Patrick O’Dwyer, brought Eucharist to a standstill in a parish he was visiting. The parish team had worked hard to prepare a feast of guitar harmonies and modern folk hymns, which, unfortunately, the Archbishop did not like at all.

Halfway through one hymn, the Archbishop slammed his hymnbook shut and shouted, “Enough of these trivial ditties. Let’s sing something decent.” He then directed the dismayed congregation to turn to a more traditional number in their books. The poor guitar group were left feeling utterly wretched.

At the end of the Mass, the parish priest thanked the parish team and then, to the renewed horror of an already slightly traumatised congregation, added, “I would like to apologise to the parish team for the extreme rudeness of the Archbishop.”

There was a ghastly silence, at the end of which the Archbishop said: “Now I have something to say. At least there is one courageous priest in this diocese.”

It is not particularly brave to ridicule other people for their musical taste. It is not clever to hurt people’s feelings when they have worked hard to prepare something for your pleasure.

So when I hear the Holy Father voicing his dislike for rock music, or when I hear that the brilliant Vatican composer Monsignor Marco Frisina is planning to characterise Hell in his forthcoming opera based on Dante’s Inferno by using punk, rock and trance type music (I’m not sure how much experience Mgr Frisina has in writing in these genres), I feel uncomfortable, because I can see that a lot of people in the church are misreading these messages as a hostility to popular taste and popular music in general.

I worry about how forward-looking it is to close the Church’s ears to the tastes of an entire generation – and I am not talking about the younger generation, but the older generation as well. Anyone under 70 has grown up with rock music. Rock music is not a bad choice for the music of Hell, for all that, because it is so much about regret, and sadness, and memories of youth. Old rock “anthems” (see how the very language of the rock critic, though pompous beyond belief, continually turns churchwards) are our Proustian madeleines.

If I turn the car radio up when I hear Boston playing “More than a Feeling” or Martha and the Muffins’ “Echo Beach” for the umpteenth time, I am certainly not indicating any feeble attempt at solidarity with young people, for whom these songs mean nothing. I am celebrating my membership of the over-45s brigade – the generation most likely to be involved in organised worship. If our musical leaders forswear the musical memories of anyone under 70, then church music will become a very antique business indeed.

I am sure that nobody in the Vatican wants to close doors to any field from which talent might enter to enrich the church’s life. People who really love music generally enjoy the best of all genres. Some months ago, our Sunday Eucharist was electrified by the harmonising of a visiting group of African ladies; we felt cleansed by the purity of their voices.

Opening my “Celebration for Everyone” hymnbook I find, nestling together on the same page, one very traditional Catholic hymn, “Immaculate Mary”; the mystical “Immortal, invisible” which I remember from my Anglican youth; a popular modern hymn by Kevin Nichols, whose tune I have become fond of over the years, and whose lines bring a tear to the eye: “Take all that daily toil plants in our heart’s poor soil, take all we start and spoil, each hopeful dream, the chances we have missed, the graces we resist, Lord in thy Eucharist, take and redeem.”

And bundled in among this lot is the song my children used to sing when they were little: “If I were a fuzzy wuzzy bear, I’d thank you Lord, for my fuzzy wuzzy hair.”

I see no harm in having such a mixed bag. A Catholic friend of mine who is a part time jazz pianist, and hosts Sunday lunchtime gospel sessions in a Chelsea nightclub, believes that church music has to reach out to different forms if it is to develop at all.

There may be times when I do not particularly want to clap my hands and sway a bit while singing “Walk, walk in the light” but there are also plenty of times when I do, and it does the soul nothing but good. Let us have the courage to allow the music of the Catholic Church to be – well, catholic.