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