Ysenda Maxtone-Graham

You’ve got to have faith

That’s one of the few sure ways of getting your child into a sought-after C of E, Catholic or Jewish school

You’ve got to have faith
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Of all the reasons for choosing to live in a ground-floor flat rather than a first-floor one, it might not occur to you that your choice could be the game-changing clincher in your child’s educational prospects — but so it is.

In the terrifying admissions criteria for Britain’s oversubscribed faith and church primary schools, you will often find these words: ‘If applicants share the same address point (for example, if they live in the same block of flats), priority will be given to those who live closest to the ground floor and then by ascending flat-number order.’

That detail gives a hint of the desperation of these schools to seem ‘fair’, and of the desperation of parents to get their first child into them. (Once your first child is in, of course, you’re home and dry, thanks to the siblings policies.) ‘Distance is measured from the central point of the child’s home address to the main entrance of the school using the local authority’s computerised measuring system,’ says the admissions page for the Larmenier and Sacred Heart Primary School in Hammersmith, west London. Such sentences lead to bouts of tape-measure-related insomnia. Where exactly is ‘the central point’ your home address? What if it’s the spot on the carpet with the vomit-stain?

But don’t get too excited, even if you happen to live in the ground-floor flat next door to an oversubscribed Catholic primary school. There are other key factors that come well above that one. As with all primary schools, ‘looked-after children’ get first priority — only in this case, you have to be a ‘Catholic looked-after child’. (This euphemism, meaning ‘in care’, is always rather sad: there’s something inherently not-looked-after about a looked-after child.) Second priority goes to ‘A Catholic child with a Certificate of Catholic Practice, baptised Catholic within 12 months of birth from Catholic families who are resident in the parish.’

That criterion drastically narrows the field. To get one of those certificates, you need to have attended the church for at least three Sundays per month for three years, plus Holy Days of Obligation. There’s no point in suddenly coming over all Catholic and taking your one-year-old to the font for a late baptism. And if you happen to be from a different wing of the Christian church: well, members of the Eastern Christian Church get priority over Church of England children. That’s a bit of a painful snub to Anglicans. Not that it matters much, because Catholic primaries in London are so heavily oversubscribed, even with Catholics, that those lower criteria of Orthodox or Anglican don’t get a look-in.

In England there are about 10,000 primary schools of ‘no religious character’, 4,000 Church of England primaries, 1,700 Roman Catholic ones and 33 Jewish ones. Many C of E schools don’t select on grounds of churchgoing at all, but purely on grounds of catchment area. Indeed, remote ones in villages all across the country are undersubscribed: struggling to keep going. In London it’s the opposite problem. There’s an air of febrile desperation to get in.

The oversubscribed Church of England primaries are not as exclusively selective on religious grounds as the Catholic and Jewish ones. Church schools (as Gillean Craig, vicar of St Mary Abbots in Kensington, stressed to me) are not the same as faith schools. ‘Whereas faith schools exist solely to educate the children of certain faith bodies, church schools were historically set up for the poor of the community. They get their role right when they remember that history.’

Nonetheless many C of E schools, including St Mary Abbots, reserve up to 75 per cent of places for children from families who can prove they’ve attended the church at least twice a month for three years. That’s why you see churches packed with families on Sunday mornings: father, mother, three children, pushchairs, nappies, smiles, colouring books, sitting through the sermon, helping with the coffee, every moment worth it (in spite of the tantrums) for the sake of saving £20,000 a year per child by getting them in to the fee-less church school rather than paying for an extortionate pre-prep and prep school. With three children, and seven years per child, you’ll be saving £420,000.

London parents I’ve spoken to with children at church primary schools say that since the economic downturn they’ve noticed a steady rise in the number of middle-class children going to C of E schools: the sons and daughers of art dealers, barristers and so on who have played the long game, dutifully bringing their offspring to church for the required two or three years.

There has in fact been a weird social shift. This was manifested in a recent joint picnic in west London for families from the local C of E school (no fees) and the local private prep. The parents whose children were at the expensive prep school had themselves been state-educated: they had come into money, and buying their children’s education was a status symbol along with the 4 x 4 car and exquisitely manicured fingernails. The parents whose children were at the C of E school had themselves been privately educated but felt less well-off than their parents, thanks to the various cruelties of the professional world. Wearing dowdier clothes, with clean but unvarnished fingernails and smaller, dustier cars, they had chosen the C of E school (and gone through the required hoops to get in) not only for its churchiness, but for its moral and educational values: for the sense that it had a soul. They had glimpsed the world of today’s money-raking prep schools, run as businesses, with their ski-trips costing £4,000 and their art trips to Florence, and had felt slightly sickened.

All this purity of purpose is slightly fudged when some of these parents remove their children at the age of eight and send them off to (private) Colet Court or Westminster Under School. C of E primaries have started clamping down on this behaviour: ‘We have no legal recourse,’ said Gillean Craig. ‘But we make it clear that we’re very unhappy to be used as a feeder for private prep schools. It’s upsetting for the whole cohort; and for the staff, because what it suggests is “You’re not really good enough” — and it can be upsetting for the child, too.’

To what extent, in this age of multiculturalism and ‘same opportunities for all’, is it acceptable for primary schools to be allowed to select on grounds of faith? Some are strongly against it. Polly Toynbee in the Guardian fumes, somewhat predictably, about the iniquitous way the system favours sharp-elbowed middle-class families at the expense of poorer children whose families don’t know how to play the game. A ‘Fair Admissions Campaign’ has been set up under the umbrella of the Accord Coalition, to protest about the system that they see as ‘bad for community cohesion’. Paul Pettinger, the national coordinator of Accord, stressed to me that the only other countries that still allow selection on grounds of faith are Iceland, Israel and Estonia. Everywhere else has moved on from such medieval practices, and so, he thinks, should we.

But there are many in favour, including (it seems) the current government, which suggested in a paper published in December, now out for consultation, that when future free schools and academies are opened, the current cap of being allowed to apply faith-based criteria to only 50 per cent of places should be removed, thereby allowing free schools to have 100 per cent faith-based admissions if they so wish. This is all part of the Conservative party’s ‘let free schools run themselves however they like, as long as they’re good’ philosophy.

And, for some reason, faith and church primary schools do tend to be good. The ‘antis’ say they’re only good because they enrol pupils with characteristics and backgrounds conducive to faster educational progress. There’s some truth in that. But parents sense that they’re also ‘good’ because they still have a toe in the old-fashioned, rigorous way of doing things. The daily assemblies, prayers and hymn-singing; the nature walks; the no-frills school trips to local museums; the proper nativity plays with tea-towel headdresses, the daily exhortations to be kind to others… these form the bedrock of children’s inner landscapes, and parents know they are of infinite worth.

But does going to a school exclusively or even mostly with children of their own faith make children less tolerant of those of other faiths? Judging from the children I’ve known, it doesn’t. Educated in the security and clarity of one faith, most children develop great curiosity about and tolerance of others. They even go off their own faith during their teens, having had too high a dose of it through early childhood. This seems healthy enough. The St Mary Abbots children recently made a large poster proclaiming the enlightened words: ‘God is too big to fit into one religion.’ If a church primary can admit that, its heart is in the right place.