Monday, April 06, 2015

Church schools must not select on the basis of faith because it discriminates against the poor, warn vicars

Christian schools shouldn't choose Christians?

Church of England schools should stop selecting pupils on faith because it discriminates against the poor, a group of vicars has claimed.

They say the system is open to abuse and many oversubscribed schools reject non-churchgoing families even though they may live nearby.

Many Christian schools give priority to families who regularly attend services, a practice which they say preserves their faith ethos.

But the clergymen said affluent parents were more likely to cheat the system by going to church just to get their children into a C of E school, which are often high-performing.

In an open letter published yesterday, an alliance of Left-leaning clergy and laypeople called for an end to religious selection.

They claimed the Church was being ‘turned to the advantage of those who are already advantaged’, and said it presented a ‘slow-burning crisis’.

The comments, made in a letter to The Guardian, sparked anger from the Church of England, which labelled their arguments ‘doctrinaire’.

The letter’s 20 signatories included Christina Baron, lay member of the General Synod, Barry Sheerman, Huddersfield Labour MP since 1979, and Theo Hobson, a theologian and religious commentator.

Simon Barrow and Jonathan Bartley of the Christian think-tank Ekklesia also signed it, as did Reverend Richard Kirker, founding member of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement.

Also on the list were Reverend Una Kroll, a women’s equality campaigner, former teachers’ union president John Swallow and Oxford professor Keith Ward.

Referring to a 2013 survey by the Sutton Trust, they said 6 per cent of parents with a child at a state-funded school admitted to attending church services in order to get their child into a Church school.

They said the level of false Church attendance rose to 10 per cent among affluent parents in the socio-economic group A.

The letter said: ‘On a superficial level this is in the Church’s interest, as attendance figures in many parishes are inflated and the standard of our schools boosted by the admittance of children from more affluent families.

‘Ultimately however the universality of the Church is being turned to the advantage of those who are already advantaged. We believe this issue presents a slow-burning crisis.

‘We urge the Church to review and then amend its national guidance on pupil admissions, so that schools are guided towards having open admission arrangements.

‘Church of England schools should look outwards, as an expression of the warmth and generosity of its mission to the whole community.’

Yesterday, a Church spokesman said: ‘The arguments set out in the letter are so flawed and inaccurate they need to be placed in special measures. 'The interpretation of the data cited is mistaken and the arguments doctrinaire.’

Rev Nigel Genders, the Church’s chief education officer, said the Church’s secondary schools have an average of 10 per cent selection by religious criteria and some have more pupils on free school meals than the national average.

He continued: ‘We run Christian schools for everyone, providing an inclusive and effective education, we are not – as the article seems to imply – running schools for middle class Christians.’

Simon Calvert, of the Christian Institute, added: ‘There’s a push to try to secularise Church schools and it’s a shame that a group of liberal Anglicans are playing into that.’


Why the yearning for selective schools?

If you happen to be stuck in a room full of teachers, education policy wonks, or other school-related busybodies and, perhaps unsurprisingly, are bored, take my advice: lob the words ‘grammar school’ into the air, then sit back and enjoy the spectacle. The think-tank Civitas has bravely waded into the great grammar-schools debate with the publication this month of The Ins and Outs of Selective Secondary Schools.

Few topics are better guaranteed to polarise education debates than the idea that children aged 10 or 11 should sit a test to determine their choice of secondary school. For ‘traditionalists’, moist-eyed in reminiscence of some golden age of standards and discipline, the widespread closure of grammar schools in the 1970s was the point at which the UK started going downhill. Meanwhile, ‘progressives’ loudly despair at the wickedness of an academically elitist system that, they argue, reinforces social inequality and places excessive pressure on young children.

England’s 164 remaining grammar schools are a legacy of the 1944 Education Act that legislated for a tripartite system of grammar, technical and secondary modern schools. Technical schools never took off to any great extent and instead a binary division of children developed. Roughly the top 20 per cent, ability-wise, of children earned a coveted grammar-school place, leaving the rest to be sent to secondary moderns, with a less academic and more practically oriented curriculum.

Campaigns against grammar schools began almost as soon as the 1944 act was passed and have continued ever since. The selection process was accused of reproducing the privilege of middle-class children who, disproportionately selected through the entrance test, were then rewarded with further social advancement, usually starting with a university place. Such arguments gathered momentum in the 1960s and, when the Labour Party’s Anthony Crosland was appointed secretary of state for education and science in 1965, he saw his first priority in office as the dismantling of the grammar schools.

Crosland, and others, argued for comprehensive schools on the egalitarian grounds that all children deserved access to the same curriculum. Real growth in the numbers attending comprehensive schools took off in the first half of the 1970s when Margaret Thatcher was secretary of state for education. In the 1970s, grammar schools went seriously out of fashion and the radical idea that every child was educable and that some things were important enough for everyone to know, came to dominate thinking, if unfortunately not practice.

Schooling in England has changed beyond all recognition since the 1970s. Today, the remaining grammar schools are not pitted against a comprehensive ideal but against myriad school types including academies, free schools, independent schools, specialist schools and church schools. At the same time, an assumption that all children are entitled to an academic knowledge-based curriculum has given way to a focus on transferable skills; a preoccupation with children’s physical health and emotional well-being; and the promotion of values in newly introduced citizenship lessons and sex and relationships education. In other areas of the curriculum, traditional subject knowledge has been squeezed to make room for promoting skills, self-esteem and emotional literacy.

Sadly, schools ambitious enough to take any child and to provide them all with a subject-based academic education are few in number. Michael Gove, despite heavy criticism from many in the educational world, did attempt to reintroduce a more knowledge-driven curriculum for all pupils. However, the differences between what is on offer to children in grammar schools, and those being educated elsewhere within the state sector, persist. Grammar schools serve as an unwelcome reminder of the education rarely found elsewhere and, importantly, that many parents clearly want for their children.

Over the past two decades, there has been a political compromise where the remaining grammar schools continue to sit, often uneasily, within their local communities. They are usually highly regarded by parents who invest considerable resources in attempting to secure a place for their child. At the same time, they have come to represent everything loathed by a more values-driven and child-centred educational establishment. The unabashed competitive entry process and teaching of a predominantly academic curriculum is out of kilter with the more skills-based and therapeutic approach to comprehensive schooling.

That grammar schools still exist in the face of such longstanding hostility from many teacher-trainers, academics and teachers’ unions, shows the desire among parents for their children to have at least a chance at a rigorous academic education. It also shows parents are not convinced their child will be best served by the local specialist sports college. Allowing free rein to parental aspirations exposes the extent to which proponents of the new educational orthodoxies are out of touch with more mainstream views.

That grammar schools continue to rouse such emotion long after they should have withered away tells us much about the impoverished nature of educational debate in Britain over the past 40 years. There has been barely any discussion about what children should know and why; instead, we have an ever-present obsession with the relationship between schooling and social class. Despite the neurotic fixation with school-types, none of the structural changes made have actually come close in the minds of parents to providing the academic education they want for their children.

Instead, despite four decades of child-centredness, children continue to be used as pawns in games of school experimentation and social engineering. Grammar schools are neither the root of all evil nor the solution to every problem in society: but they do provide a useful reminder as to what knowledge-based education looks like.


Anti-Israel academics: the world’s least convincing free-speech warriors

Another week, another act of political censorship at a British university. This time the victim of the insidious campus culture of clamping down on anything provocative is an anti-Israel conference that was due to take place at Southampton University next month. Designed to question the ‘legitimacy in international law of the Jewish state of Israel’ - that is, the right of Israel to exist - the conference provoked disquiet among Israel supporters. A petition slamming the conference as one-sided and prejudiced, started by the Zionist Federation, garnered 6,500 signatures. The Jewish Board of Deputies and various MPs, including communities secretary Eric Pickles, opposed the conference. And so Southampton Uni has now reportedly told the organisers that it cannot go ahead, and it did so in what is now the favoured sly lingo of every campus censor who wants to shut down allegedly shocking things - it said the conference raised ‘health and safety’ concerns. Once, things were silenced to protect our moral sensitivities; now, stuff is censored to protect our health and safety.

The pulling of the conference, under what the organisers describe as ‘political pressure’, is really bad, yet another blow against the principle of academic freedom and the need for open, robust and challenging debate in the academy. Even if the conference was one-sided and prejudiced, so what? Academics and students must be free to discuss all issues in whatever way they see fit. There is no doubt that many so-called radical university attendees and teachers these days display an alarming double standard in relation to Israel, demonising it in a way they do to no other state on Earth and openly dreaming that it will one day disappear, on the grounds that it is an ‘illegitimate’ entity.

That is an unattractive political outlook, no doubt. But the way you challenge ideas you don’t like is by allowing them to be expressed in order that you can better knock them down through argument, articles, discussion, debate. Suppressing the expression of an idea does no one any favours, since it silences one side’s outlook and it robs the opposing side, the ill-advisedly censorious side, of the chance to put counter-arguments, to tussle in a public forum with those it thinks are wrong.

However - and this is a very big however - the conference organisers and their sympathisers in the media, the academy and on Twitter must be the least convincing defenders of academic freedom in living memory. These anti-Israel thinkers and campaigners are currently crying ‘Censorship!’ as loudly as they can, depicting themselves as a persecuted minority silenced by powerful political actors (You Know Who).

A professor of law at Southampton, and a co-organiser of the conference, said ‘the controversial nature of the conference is precisely where [the principle of] freedom of speech leads – that’s where the commitment to freedom of speech is tested’. He’s right about that; but he’s wrong if he thinks we’re going to buy the idea that today’s shrill and many opponents of Israel are glorious defenders of free speech or controversial discussion. On the contrary, the anti-Israel lobby is possibly the most censorious mob on British campuses today, practising, week in, week out, the very same censoriousness it now cries about being victimised by.

Whether they are No Platforming Zionist speakers and representatives of the Israeli government, or demanding an academic boycott against any professor or thinker or book that comes from Israel, or agitating for the removal from Britain of Israeli dance troupes or theatre groups or filmmakers - as if they were all diseased with contagious Zionism - anti-Israel campaigners have become dab hands at shutting down debate, at silencing those they (irrationally) hate. Their everyday currency is censorship.

In recent months, Israel societies on campus have had to cancel events following loud and censorious disruptions and have even faced demands that they be shut down on the basis that they make their campuses into Unsafe Spaces - which means they hold views that small numbers of student-union bureaucrats consider foul. Indeed, in the Guardian article that sympathises with the silenced Southampton discussants it is casually mentioned that the organisers of the conference have ‘voiced support for an academic boycott [of Israel]’. So these self-styled warriors for academic freedom back the highly illiberal and discriminatory tactic of never exchanging thoughts or ideas with Israeli thinkers and instead banning them from British campuses. You couldn’t make it up.

So not only do modern-day Israel-bashers harbour an alarming double standard in relation to Israel; they also have a double standard on freedom of speech, seeing it as something they should enjoy but which supporters of Israel should not. Which of course is not freedom of speech at all. If you call for Israeli speakers or academics or events to be shut down but demand that your own events be protected from censure, you are fighting for privileged speech; you’re actually promoting a bigoted worldview that explicitly treats people differently, saying that some people’s views (mine) are worthy of broadcast but other people’s (theirs) are not. Here’s an idea: how about all sides stop calling for censorship and instead have the cojones to challenge their opponents in the public realm, with words and ideas rather than bans and boycotts?


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