In Britain, Families Go to Church So Kids Can Go to School ; the Lack of Decent State-Run Schools and the High Cost of Private Education Are Driving Families to Church Schools

By Mark Rice-Oxley Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, November 8, 2006 | Go to article overview

In Britain, Families Go to Church So Kids Can Go to School ; the Lack of Decent State-Run Schools and the High Cost of Private Education Are Driving Families to Church Schools


Mark Rice-Oxley Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Church was never a big part of Maria Allen's life. She used to go as a child, but lapsed as a teenager. All through university and her 20s, she rarely gave it a second thought. She was a regular worshiper, she quips: once a year, at Christmas.

Then, she had a daughter, and things changed. Ms. Allen didn't suddenly find God. She suddenly found Britain's school system. And that presented a problem. She lives in a part of London that is short on decent schools. The best were either too far away or too expensive. The rest were poor. All except for one: a church school, right on the doorstep, with an excellent reputation. But to stand a chance of getting in, you have to go to church.

"We started going about two years ago, when my daughter was about 2 years old," says Allen, who says she quickly came to enjoy the community of St. Mary Abbots in London's Kensington district. "There are only a few good schools round here, and while state school education can be very good, it can also be very bad, and no one is going to take a risk with their child."

Allen says she has few qualms about her pragmatism, though she nevertheless requested a pseudonym for this article. She believes she is far from alone. The quality of education being offered at British schools is highly variable, and many parents, particularly among the middle classes, will do whatever it takes to secure the best place for their child.

A recent survey by the ICM polling institute found that 44 percent of parents were prepared to use underhanded tactics to get their child into a good school; 12 percent said they would embellish their religious credentials to help their child - this in a country where active worship has declined precipitously in the past 50 years.

"Lots of people seem to go back to church when they have children, and the driving force may be trying to get their kids into school," Allen says. "While I can see that it isn't great that we do this - plenty of people, for example, won't know how to play this game - if it gets people back into the church, that's a good thing."

Data proving the trend are hard to come by, but research earlier this year found that church schools were generally taking in more affluent children than other state schools. A recent survey of all 17,000 British primary schools found that on average only 1 in 7 church school pupils were from poor backgrounds, compared with roughly 1 in 5 nationally.

"There are clearly a group of people who are returning to churchgoing in order to establish their child in a school," says Malcolm Trobe, head teacher of a state school and the president of the Association of School and College leaders, a group of school principals. "You can understand that parents would want their child to go the best possible school, but one shouldn't be picking up a religious belief in order to ensure one's child gets into a school."

Yet this subterfuge is just part of an unseemly parental scramble for school places in a country with a complex education system and byzantine rules on pupil admission.

For parents unprepared to pay tuition, the state provides schooling that varies enormously, from wholesome, well-run establishments with good academics to neglected schools attended (irregularly) by those more likely to graduate with a criminal record than a clutch of A grades.

Admission to state schools is largely based on where parents live. Mr. Trobe says some parents have resorted to buying or renting second homes close to desirable schools to assure admission.

One-third of the state-funded sector - 7,000 schools - are faith- based. Most are Christian (Roman Catholic or Church of England), many of which date back to the 18th and 19th centuries, when churches provided the only free basic education available to poor children.

When the schools are oversubscribed, admission is often governed by regular church attendance and energetic parish involvement. …

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