CANTERBURY, England (RNS) Leading secularists are calling on nonreligious parents to fight a government effort that would allow the Church of England to run thousands of state schools.
The schools, or academies, would be privately funded, quasi-independent and accountable to the church for their curricula, organization, admission policies and teachers’ pay and conditions.
As of July, there were 3,049 such academies operating in England, many financed by businessmen, finance companies, supermarkets, football clubs and a growing number of faith-based organizations including the Roman Catholic Church, the Methodist Church and the largest of all — the Church of England.
Following a recent agreement between the Department of Education and the church, thousands more state-run schools could be taken over by the church.
Under this new undertaking, bishops would be given the power to appoint school governors — unpaid private citizens who volunteer to oversee the performance of educational institutions.
The Church of England — a pioneer in the field of education in the early days of the 19th century — already runs more than 5,000 schools, several hundred of them academies.
The church’s work bringing the gospel and “three R’s” (‘reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic) to impoverished working class children is well documented.
It was only in 1870 that the government accepted a responsibility for educating children here.
So the church’s educational track record is greatly admired as well as criticized by many secularists who say the days when Christian philanthropists gave their time and money to educate the poor should be a thing of the past.
“The Church of England is rapidly changing its focus from its primary purpose — church worship — which has failed spectacularly, with empty pews all over the country, to getting its message out in schools,” said Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society.
He called on parents who might be uneasy with the new deal between government and church to “make their feelings known both to schools and, more importantly, politicians.”
Added Executive Director Keith Porteous Wood: “Nonreligious and religiously unconcerned families are now in the majority and this move will further alienate them from the education system. This will surreptitiously bring the education system under religious control. Once our schools have been taken over by religious interests, it will be almost impossible to ever bring them back under community control.”
Academies were set up under Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2000.
While the governments of Blair, and now David Cameron, insist academies will raise standards throughout Britain and enable the country to catch up with its educational model state — Finland — there is also a belief that the present cash-strapped government is anxious to lessen its financial commitment to education by encouraging the formation of privately sponsored academies.
The Church of England insists that state schools that become academies under its control will lead to higher educational standards and not the Christian “indoctrination” of pupils that the National Secular Society fears.
Oxford Bishop John Pritchard, who oversees education policy within the Church of England, said he expects many small village primary schools, which educate children aged five to 11, will want to link up with the church academy chains.
“I think people may not realize the significance of what looks like a small technical change but actually allows the mutual support, the drawing together of resources, experiments in collaboration,” he said. “It allows a whole lot more and it will enhance the educational experience of millions of children.”
About three-quarters of church schools are judged as “good” by Ofsted, Britain’s official body for inspecting schools, compared with 57 percent of secular schools in the UK.
Pritchard predicted a “steady, faster” growth in the number of church-led academy chains and said that in years to come the academy status would become “the norm” for church schools.
But Education Minister Michael Gove raised eyebrows when he told The Times that he wanted the church to recover “the spirit which infused its educational mission in Victorian times.”
The new archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, suggested the Christian mission would continue.
“It is obviously true that good schools help produce an educated workforce,” Welby said. “But the Christian vision is a far greater one. It is about setting a framework for children as they learn, which enables them to be confident when faced with the vast challenges that rapidly changing culture bring to us.”
England has an established church and no constitutional principle of freedom of religious exercise. But the state allows other religious groups to worship freely alongside the established church.