Church was never a big part of Maria Allen's life. She used to go as a child, but lapsed as a teenager. All through university and her 20s, she rarely gave it a second thought. She was a regular worshiper, she quips: once a year, at Christmas.
Then, she had a daughter, and things changed. Ms. Allen didn't suddenly find God. She suddenly found Britain's school system. And that presented a problem. She lives in a part of London that is short on decent schools. The best were either too far away or too expensive. The rest were poor. All except for one: a church school, right on the doorstep, with an excellent reputation. But to stand a chance of getting in, you have to go to church.
"We started going about two years ago, when my daughter was about 2 years old," says Allen, who says she quickly came to enjoy the community of St. Mary Abbots in London's Kensington district. "There are only a few good schools round here, and while state school education can be very good, it can also be very bad, and no one is going to take a risk with their child."
Allen says she has few qualms about her pragmatism, though she nevertheless requested a pseudonym for this article. She believes she is far from alone. The quality of education being offered at British schools is highly variable, and many parents, particularly among the middle classes, will do whatever it takes to secure the best place for their child.
A recent survey by the ICM polling institute found that 44 percent of parents were prepared to use underhanded tactics to get their child into a good school; 12 percent said they would embellish their religious credentials to help their child – this in a country where active worship has declined precipitously in the past 50 years.
"Lots of people seem to go back to church when they have children, and the driving force may be trying to get their kids into school," Allen says. "While I can see that it isn't great that we do this – plenty of people, for example, won't know how to play this game – if it gets people back into the church, that's a good thing."
Data proving the trend are hard to come by, but research earlier this year found that church schools were generally taking in more affluent children than other state schools. A recent survey of all 17,000 British primary schools found that on average only 1 in 7 church school pupils were from poor backgrounds, compared with roughly 1 in 5 nationally.
"There are clearly a group of people who are returning to churchgoing in order to establish their child in a school," says Malcolm Trobe, head teacher of a state school and the president of the Association of School and College leaders, a group of school principals. "You can understand that parents would want their child to go the best possible school, but one shouldn't be picking up a religious belief in order to ensure one's child gets into a school."
Yet this subterfuge is just part of an unseemly parental scramble for school places in a country with a complex education system and byzantine rules on pupil admission.
For parents unprepared to pay tuition, the state provides schooling that varies enormously, from wholesome, well-run establishments with good academics to neglected schools attended (irregularly) by those more likely to graduate with a criminal record than a clutch of A grades.
Admission to state schools is largely based on where parents live. Mr. Trobe says some parents have resorted to buying or renting second homes close to desirable schools to assure admission.
One-third of the state-funded sector – 7,000 schools – are faith-based. Most are Christian (Roman Catholic or Church of England), many of which date back to the 18th and 19th centuries, when churches provided the only free basic education available to poor children.
When the schools are oversubscribed, admission is often governed by regular church attendance and energetic parish involvement. Some schools even require parents to get a document from the local priest attesting to their attendance and commitment. For parents like Allen, a bit of time helping at the Christmas bazaar or hosting a coffee is infinitely preferable to consigning her daughter to a bad school.
Catholic schools are often particularly interested in reserving places for Catholics first, says Prof. Robert Jackson, a faith-schools expert. This sets them apart from Catholic schools in America, which are often an attractive option for low-income students but don't tend to discriminate against non-Catholics. In Britain, says Professor Jackson, the Catholic community has this idea of "parish, parent, and school." "It's a partnership, and the idea is that everybody goes to the local Catholic school."
At St. Mary Abbots church in west London, Fr. Gillean Craig says he believes that few of the young families thronging his 300-strong Sunday congregation are there on false pretenses. And if they are, he says, what's the harm?
"God draws people to church for an unbelievable range of reasons," he says. "I don't think that the initial impetus is important. I'm not too worried."
But secularists are. In a country in which barely 1 in 10 regularly attend church, many are alarmed that the church holds such sway over education. And in a country in which segregation has become such a big issue, particularly of Muslim communities, there is concern that faith schools appear to encourage a form of apartheid.
"These schools are supposed to be promoting morality and a Christian ethos, and yet are encouraging parents to be dishonest in order to get their children in," says Terry Sanderson, vice president of the National Secular Society, which campaigns for religion to remain a private matter and not intrude into public policy.
"I really don't think this is what schools are about, recruiting for the church," he says. "Schools are there to educate children." Though faith schools are required to follow a national curriculum and teach about other religions, Mr. Sanderson says they barely disguise their efforts to indoctrinate. "The whole purpose of the single-faith school is to inculcate doctrine into pupils," he says.
Not so, say Church of England officials. "We are not teaching people to be Christians, we are following the national curriculum within a very strong Christian ethos," Father Craig says.
Canon John Hall, the Church of England's head of education, acknowledges that unlike publicly funded schools in the US, Anglican-faith schools have a distinctly Christian flavor and have daily worship. He dismisses the suggestion of segregation and points out that in less- populated parts of the country, Anglican schools boast a wider mix of pupils drawn from all parts of the community. "We are proud of the fact that we are, in our way, inclusive," he says.
Some secularists wanted the government to force faith schools to offer 25 percent of their places to pupils of other faiths. But having unveiled the policy, Education Secretary Alan Johnson suddenly renounced it last week, leaving church schools free to manage their admissions as before.
Professor Jackson, director of the religions and education research unit at Warwick University in Coventry, England, believes the 25-percent rule would have resulted in many faith schools – particularly oversubscribed Jewish and Catholic schools – having to turn away children from their own communities.
Meanwhile, despite her best efforts, Allen still is not assured of getting her daughter into her local church school. There are only 30 children in each grade, and siblings have priority. But whether her daughter gets in or not, Allen won't be quitting the church.
"It's been a really great way of getting into the community and getting to know people," she says. "You'll find very few people who get their kids into the school and then disappear.
"What the church has found is that the school is great for bringing young parents into church, who then stay."
Britain has 2,200 independent schools, which are privately owned and run. Students pay tuition to go there. Britain also has some 25,000 schools run by the state. They are generally of four types:
1. Community and foundation schools (about 15,000). Funding, staff, land, and admissions are controlled by local education authorities.
2. Faith schools (7,000). These are overwhelmingly Christian schools, but there are also 36 Jewish schools, seven Muslim ones, and two that are Sikh. They are funded by local education authorities, but some (so-called voluntary-aided faith schools) control admissions.
3. Specialist schools (2,500). These are akin to US "magnet" schools. Some pupils are admitted based on their aptitude in a school's particular specialty – such as arts, languages, mathematics, music or science.
4. Academies (only 12 so far, but the number is rising). These are partly funded by benefactors. Some admissions are made based on aptitude. Their curriculums are distinct from the national curriculums taught in other publicaly funded national schools.