The National Secular Society has reacted angrily to the announcement that 70 per cent of the Church of England’s 4,800 schools pan to convert to academy status within five years. The move would give thousands of faith schools more power over admissions, staffing, and the curriculum.
The comments were made by the chairman of the church’s board of education, the Rt Rev John Pritchard, Bishop of Oxford.
In an article published by the Times Educational Supplement on Saturday, the Bishop also predicted that local education authorities would “wither on the vine”. The Bishop went on to say that as well as supporting its own schools, the church is likely to provide a range of services to non-faith schools.
The article claims that a number of Catholic and minority faith schools are due to follow suit, resulting in considerable new powers for religious schools over admissions, curriculum and funding.
Reacting to the comments, Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular society said, “The prospect of the church taking over so much of the education system in this country is deeply unhealthy and undesirable.
“A mass conversion of voluntary controlled schools into entirely self-governing academies freed from the moderating influence of local authorities will be the churches’ dream and most parents’ nightmare.
“It is a betrayal of the nation’s children to give the churches so much control of our publicly-funded education system, especially while church attendance is in freefall.”
“For years we have heard the mantra that choice is all in education - but if the role of local authorities is taken over by the church, there will be little choice for those who do not want their children to receive a heavily biased education. We are unconvinced by church claims that they will not use schools for proselytising - we are regularly contacted by parents who can see it happening already.
“If the Bishop‘s predictions about the demise of local education authorities turns out to be correct, it could result in currently non-religious schools becoming beholden to church school administrators for assistance, which will inevitably come with religious demands attached.
“We are on the way to the majority of our education system being under religious influence – despite being one of the least religious countries in Europe.”
The Bishop of Oxford’s comments follow his earlier admission last month that religious schools achieve their league-topping results by using privileged admissions criteria to select the best pupils. The Bishop said he would like to open up church schools to more non-Anglicans – reserving only 10 per cent of places for the children of church-goers. However, in the same article he revealed that no such restrictions would be put forward in the Church of England guidance to be issued later in the year.
Earlier this year the NSS warned that the Government’s academies and free schools proposals could intensify discrimination in publicly-funded faith schools. In an article for the Catholic Herald, the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, recently recommended that Catholic schools should transfer to academy status to put them “out of reach of meddling secularists”. He said the academy model gave Catholic schools a chance to extend “hard-won freedoms” over admissions, staff appointments, the teaching of religion and the way they are governed.