The role of faith schools in Croydon

By - Friday 8th May, 2015

Sean Creighton asks what faith schools offer the diverse community of Croydon

Last year’s rows over the proposed Ahmadiyya mosque in New Addington, and the ending of negotiations by Croydon Council to sell the old Ashburton library to the His Grace Community Outreach Church, have been reminders of the controversies that can surround the aspirations of different faith organisations and over what their role in civil society should be.

Given the historic role of faith in charitable and voluntary group activities, it was inevitable that the fracturing of society and the running-down of public services under Thatcherism would be followed by a growth of community and voluntary organisations, many faith-motivated, and in the numbers of politicians wishing to harness this as a substitute for state provision.

The government has stated that faith schools must be inclusive

Faith can be a powerful driver to making a positive contribution to tackling social problems and to regeneration and renewal. One of the biggest areas of faith-inspired growth in Croydon has been the academy schools run under the umbrella Christian Oasis UK charity which states that it “is inspired and motivated by the life, teaching and example of Jesus”. The continued survival of the Croydon Churches Housing Association is a reminder of examples of action from the 1960s, and faith groups have also been in the forefront of building support networks for refugees and asylum seekers. This positive side of faith communities can be traced back to the Quaker campaign against the slave trade, broadened out in alliance with evangelical Anglicans, Methodists, Unitarians and others.

But faith is Janus-like, with a dark side of sectarianism and bigotry, and the churches have themselves been places of struggle and conflict, often leading to splits, as with the Methodists in the 19th century and the Church of England’s more recent rows over the role of women and gay people. The growth in black Protestant churches in Britain from the 1950s onwards was partly in response to the non-acceptance and even racism that they experienced in white congregations.

The government therefore made clear ten years ago that, while it encouraged the expansion of faith schools, these must be non-sectarian and inclusive. This clearly is reflected locally in Oasis’ academies and in the two run by the Catholic Coloma Trust (Archbishop Lanfranc and Quest).

26% of Croydon’s Year 7 secondary places in 2015 are in church schools

But the older voluntary aided Church of England and Roman Catholic schools within the state sector are able to retain their faith admission criteria. Here in Croydon, twenty out of eighty-seven primary schools have such criteria. 26% of Croydon’s secondary school places offered for Year 7 this year are in church schools, with up to 90% of these 858 places restricted to those practicing a faith, which has to be evidenced by the clergy. As local parents face an increasing struggle to access appropriate school placements for their children, the presence of schools which are closed to large sections of the community increases the pressure that families face.

At a national level there are also concerns about the social effects of faith schools. Using Department of Education data, in 2012 the Guardian newspaper found that England’s faith schools were failing “to mirror their local communities by shunning the poorest pupils in their area“. While 21.5% of pupils were claiming free school meals in non-religious primaries and 15.6% in secondaries, for Church of England schools these figures were 13.1% and 12%. It appears that faith schools are attracting pupils from more affluent families and I have spoken to parents in Croydon who cite this as a factor in their decision to apply.

No public service should have faith as a condition of use

As a strong believer in the role of civil society and its organisations as independent partners with local and central government and of community action, I have no objection to faith organisations setting up projects. But there need to be clear criteria for the basis of their operation if they are to be supported by public resources. There must be no proselytising about their faith, which raises questions over practises in faith schools such as enforced weekly church attendance for pupils and prayers at parents’ evenings with no offer of optional participation or acknowledgement of diversity. Pupils should also not be required to take religious studies to GCSE level regardless of whether their educational needs and other subject choices support this, as happens in at least one faith school in Croydon.

Most importantly, in a pluralist society, there must be no conditions as to use of services based on faith. Service use must be open to all. So there must be an end to church attendance as a requirement for entry to Croydon’s church schools. Education in specific faith teachings (as opposed to comparative religious education) should be kept within the churches, mosques and so on, as a specific part of their internal organisational offer. Most importantly, the young members of a society as diverse as Croydon should not experience faith segregation in education.

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly and with the Planning and Transport Committee of the Love Norbury group of residents associations. He is Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, British black society, social action and the labour movement. He coordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint called History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

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  • Anne Giles

    I thoroughly agree with this. I spent a year at a convent school and it was a nightmare.

  • Pass The Deutschy

    If I don’t want to have to go a mosque on Friday I don’t send my kids to a Muslim school, end. Why is it that in a “pluralist” society we are always hearing that the church must change to reflect society but society doesn’t have to change to reflect the church. The church isn’t telling non-faith schools what they must and must not do so why should faith schools be expected to change to accommodate those who don’t have the same beliefs? Maybe I want religious school assemblies back to reflect my beliefs why can’t that happen in a non religious school but it can work the other way round? The usual one-way bias I’ve come to expect of our modern times.