THE CHURCH of England is preparing itself for the biggest expansion in religious schooling for 50 years.
A report published yesterday by the church has opened the way for 100 new C of E schools which will go some way to meeting the huge demand for places. Such is the reputation of these schools that requests for places come regardless of whether or not parents are churchgoers.
There is a feeling among parents that a church school will offer discipline and a distinctive moral code. They also see better exam results with the GCSE pass rate in church schools 12 per cent higher than those for local authority-maintained state secondary schools.
But there is a downside to this. With church school heads and school governors being forced to turn away so many children (for every 100 parents whose children are accepted, 60 are turned away), the suspicion has grown that these schools have become representative of the middle classes. Interviews with parents, although frowned on officially by the church, result in churchgoers - and possibly children who are thought to be brighter academically - being given preference.
The church's own statistics appear to back that up. They show that the number of pupils receiving free school meals (those whose families are on income support) is 20 per cent higher in local authority-maintained schools than their own.
Now, though, the Church of England is hoping that plans to set up 100 more secondary schools within the next eight years will help it shed any image of elitism. It is a massive expansion considering there are only about 150 C of E schools and is rivalled only by a major increase in the number of C of E and Roman Catholic schools in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Lord Dearing, the author of yesterday's report, said he hoped the increase would help make schools more representative of the communities they served. He said: "We have a special duty to take in children with special needs and we want to look for opportunities to meet the wishes of more parents in areas of social hardship. We're saying this may depress your average exam results but take it on the chin, go for it and be brave."
The timing of the church's announcement is deliberate. It has already been given the blessing of the Government in a Green Paper on secondary schools just before the election.
The Green Paper envisaged voluntary groups such as churches sponsoring some of the City Academies it is setting up as centres of excellence in inner-city areas. It also spelt out a role for churches in taking out contracts to run failing schools and helping turn them round.
The report said: "Perhaps as never before in 50 years, the church has a great opportunity to pursue and develop its mission to the nation through its schools. …