Hugh David wonders why Ed Balls can get away with slandering church schools
Iam holding my breath for a public apology from Ed Balls and his ministers at the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Probably in vain, so only metaphorically, but hope springs eternal.
You may recall that earlier this year they made headlines with their suggestions that, in three education authorities, some state schools, mainly run by religious bodies, were breaking the Government's admissions' code, These remarks played very well indeed at the time with the vociferous lobby in this country who take every opportunity to denigrate the achievements of schools of a religious character by ascribing them all to back-door selection of the most able pupils.
Now Dr Philip Hunter, the chief schools admissions adjudicator, has produced an interim report for the Secretary of State on the allegations that Mr Balls did so much to air. He has taken evidence from 3,500 schools. And what has Dr Hunter found? Precisely what all the sensible education experts said at the time, namely that the introduction of a new and complex admissions code for all state schools had left many confused and caused many to make minor infringements of the code.
According to Dr Hunter's report almost half the state schools in England broke the new code in some small way or another. Not, note, a handful of church schools, but half the schools in England. They have done so, Dr Hunter concludes, because of "technical and administrative issues... not wilful disregard of the law." Earlier this year ministers suggested that church schools might have been cherry-picking their pupils by asking parents questions about their lifestyles so as to identify the middle-class ones. What does Dr Hunter find? That questions about parents' marital and employment status were being asked in some schools not just church schools and that such maladministration should not be allowed to continue, but that "nothing led me to believe that people were trying to select by stealth". It is worth repeating that finding of the official entrusted with protecting state schools against abuse of the admissions' code: "Nothing led me to believe that people were trying to select by stealth."
So, Mr Balls, over to you. I think you owe us an apology. Or at least have the good grace publicly to give church schools a clean bill of health. It is in your interest as the custodian of the nation's schools.
I can't help thinking Mr Balls, however, will be slightly disappointed. Indeed it has been a series of disappointments for him of late. First, according to reports, he was unable to stop his mentor, Gordon Brown, bringing Peter Mandel son back into the cabinet. Then Janet Street-Porter, with her acid but usually accurate tongue, pointing out that Mr Balls was a fine one to be lecturing us on healthy eating when he was hardly conspicuously svelte. And now he has been denied a further opportunity to win friends on the Labour backbenches by having another go at church schools. Cry me a river. Another good week for the post-bag. To continue the theme of the exaggerations, half truths and downright lies told about church schools, let's start with a correspondent who asks to remain anonymous for obvious reasons. From the staffroom of one of our most high-achieving Catholic comprehensive schools this writer reports that "the ending of interviews for faith schools [another Government bright idea to stop the sort of selection by stealth that Dr Hunter says doesn't exist], the social class of pupils in the more sought-after ones has become noticeably more middle class". The Government's rules, then, have had the opposite effect to what was intended. "Those who favoured the scrapping of interviews in the pursuit of fairness," this correspondent reports from the front line, "could not have been more wrong. Why? Because entry now depends on an ability to fill in forms, so those worthy families who often shone at interviews but who felt , daunted by the forms do not stand as much chance as those at ease with paperwork... the middle class". On another subject, Elizabeth Canning writes to dispute my comments two weeks ago about whether Catholic governors should discriminate against openly gay candidates who apply for senior posts in their schools and risk Government censure similar to that now being suffered by Catholic adoption agencies. "I certainly agree," she writes, "that the issue of homosexuality and the Church's teaching is very confused both among Catholics and of course the media". She goes on to suggest that a distinction needs to be made between paedophiles those who wish to use sexual violence on young children and those who are sexually attracted to post-pubescent teenagers. This affliction is called ephebophilia. Miss Canning, I should emphasise, does not try to excuse either, but wonders if it is the latter problem that "is the real issue in the US Church".
Ephebophilia is a new word on me. I looked it up and found it defined as a sexual attraction to 1519 year olds. Which, of course, gets us into muddy legal waters. The age of consent in Britain is 16. So ephebophilia, when directed at 1619 year olds, is technically legal, though if any older adult started chasing my children, when they reach that age, I know I would regard them as assailants. "I hope," Miss Canning, writes, "that one day our hierarchy will address this important pastoral matter."
Her final conclusion had me intrigued. "If only the Church had such an effective advocacy group as Stonewall..." Now, there's a thought.
Keep your thoughts coming to me, Hugh David, at [email protected], or by post to the Herald's offices.