Page 9, 1st February 2008

1st February 2008
Page 9
Page 9, 1st February 2008 — An elbow in the ribs

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An elbow in the ribs

Politicians should bury myths, not propagate them, says Hugh David


I've been busy checking my elbows at the school gates this week while waiting for my children to emerge at the end of the lessons. Checking, that is, that they're not sharp. Why? Because the Tory leader, David Cameron, did the current image problem suffered by faith schools no good at all when, in an interview with the Times, he fuelled the myth that there are hordes of parents out there pretending to be religious in order to get their children into church schools.

Refusing to castigate "middle-class parents with sharp elbows", Mr Cameron went on: "I think it's good for parents who want the best for their kids. I don't blame anyone who tries to get their children into a good school. Most people are doing so because it has an ethos and culture. I believe in active citizens."

Lying doesn't seem to me to be the best example to set your kids, Misrepresenting your faith hardly counts as a little white Iie. And, even if you do, sending them to a school whose religious ethos is different / antithetical to the home environment might be better described as a recipe for a severely mixed-up child.

But then every one is entitled to an opinion on this one. And, as the Times pointed out, our Dave, man of the people, will learn this year whether his own daughter has won a place at a faith school in Kensington, West London. All a far cry from his own alma mater Eton.

One of the heart-warming developments of recent times has been the (tardy) realisation by those politicians running the state education system that they cannot send their own children to private schools. They must have a stake in what they are controlling, rather than regard it as a service for those too poor to pay school fees. Until recently it was only Labour ministers like Harriet Harman and Ruth Kelly who came under fire for rejecting their local comp, but now it seems the Tories are getting the message too.

Quite how deep it is penetrating remains another matter. At St Peter's,

the Catholic primary where my two sons go. we recently staged a fundraising evening. In need of a bit of what passes in our area for glamour and celebrity, we asked our local Tory MP to grace us with her presence. I was the parent governor drafted in to look after her.

Alt went well, very well indeed, until, post-event, we were sitting in the staff-room a rare privilege that suddenly made me aware of the great age I had reached (it felt like only weeks before that I used to queue up at the staffroom door to be strapped by the teacher on duty for some minor misdemeanour or other). I was running through the many strengths of St Peter's, and why it was worthy of our MP's support, when she leant forward and said: "But be honest, Hugh, if you had the money, you'd chose a fee-paying school for your boys, wouldn't you?" I didn't know which accusation hurt the most that I was a liar. that I was poor or that I was failing my sons.

But back to Mr Cameron. I've just been reading a new book by the editor-in-chief of this paper, Damian Thompson, entitled Counterknowledge. In it, he shows with wit and perception (sharp elbows, me?) how ready the public is to take as gospel "facts" that have no basis in truth. All that is often required is for a few "names" to endorse the falsehood.

So the Tory leader's endorsement of the "fact" that plenty of parents at faith schools are just pretending to be religious will feel, for many, like the final conformation of what is in reality an untested theory.

And so, on the night his interview appeared, up popped the Guardian's Polly Toynbee on Newsnight, in an item hooked on Cameron's remark, to trot out the whole gamut of charges against faith schools including that they aren't interested in children from chaotic families (come to St Peter's, is all I can say to that, or better still, come to our house), and that their intake doesn't reflect the demographics of their local area (right, but it shouldn't because their whole purpose is to draw children from religious families who tend to be spread thinly and wide over large catchment areas).

Enough to make you weep.

FAsolace, I turn to the postbag and a note from Edmund

damus, director of the Department for Pastoral Affairs at the Diocese of Westminster. You may recall that last year I highlighted plans, which he is coordinating, to make available to primary age children in this country "My School Diary"; an innovative parent-child journal that has proved a great success in Australia in building a link between religious education in the classroom and at home.

Plans are coming on apace, he reports. There is now a pilot of the diary going on in Blessed Sacrament parish, just behind London's Kings Cross station, with the First Communion class. All those interested in getting details or ordering copies in time for the next academic year should contact him on [email protected]

He adds, in relation to my attack on Ed Balls's U-turn on faith schools, from warm to cold, that it was "hardly surprising given his insistence that faith schools may only teach as an `opinion', not as objective truth, that the union of one man and one woman in marriage is an authentic expression of human sexuality". This Government line goes against Catholic teaching as set out in the Catechism.

Do keep your letters and e-mails coming in to me care of [email protected]

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