Mau-mauing The Times of London

The Archbishop of Canterbury has stated the Church of England was  moving away from using faith as a criteria for admission to its church-supported schools, The Times of London reported last week.

And the newspaper caught hell for it. The Church of England’s press office said this was untrue — a “creative piece of writing.”

Was this a he said/she said (or wrote) dispute? The “he” being Justin Welby the archbishop of Canterbury and the “she” Ruth Gledhill, The Times‘ star religion reporter. Or was this a case of what the archbishop said was not exactly what he meant? Were his words taken out of context? Did The Times deserve the drubbing it was given?

At this point — a week after the story entitled “Church in ‘move away’ from school selection” (behind a paywall I’m afraid) — a newspaper reader is not likely to be any the wiser as to what happened. The Church of England’s press office and the Lambeth Palace press office have thrown up such a wall of flak round the interview that the archbishop’s original statement is moot. The content of the denials are now the story — or the official line from the church.

On Nov. 14, 2013 The Times reported:

Church of England faith schools are moving away from selecting pupils on the basis of their religion, the Archbishop of Canterbury has revealed.

The Most Rev Justin Welby said that selection was not necessarily the key to good results and believes that throwing open the doors to all-comers can help the Church achieve its mission to alleviate poverty.

Church of England schools are not analogous to Catholic parochial schools in the U.S. They are not private schools funded by tuition and supported by a sponsoring denomination. In England they are state funded. The Church of England explains:

The English system of education has been built in partnership with the Christian churches. The Churches were the first providers of schools, funding building and staff costs through voluntary donations. The State gradually became convinced that it had a duty to provide education and gradually assumed a larger part of the task. But Government has always recognised that Church schools are important partners in providing education for all. That partnership enables the State to use  around  8,000 school buildings and sites owned by the Church of England and Roman Catholic Church free of charge, but in return successive governments, irrespective of political party, have continued to provide financial support for church schools.

Some parents choose Church schools because they want to have their children educated in accordance with their Christian belief, others because it is the nearest school or because it is a school which takes spiritual as well as social, moral and cultural development seriously. Whatever the reason, Church of England schools are committed to offering high quality education to the whole community and are part of the Church’s commitment to serving the common good. Taxpayer’s money is therefore being used to provide high quality education for tax payer’s children.

Many Church of England schools, which educate a quarter of England’s primary school children, are over subscribed. Removing faith, or lessening its importance,  from among the selection criteria for prospective students, would be a game changer in the admissions game.

Shortly after the story went live on The Times website, the archbishop’s interim press officer sent an email blast to religion reporters, saying the report was untrue.

In the course of a wide ranging interview for The Times on the subject of tackling poverty, the Archbishop of Canterbury was asked about the role of schools. He praised the work of church schools especially in areas of highest deprivation, and stressed the importance of home, family and excellent school leadership.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has issued the following statement regarding selection criteria for church schools: “I fully support the current policy for schools to set their own admissions criteria, including the criterion of faith. Nothing in my wider comments to The Times on this subject should be seen as “revealing” any changes nor dissenting from current policy.”    The Most Revd Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Director of Communications for the Church of England issued a further denial, which stated in part:

The (erroneous) story in today’s Times Newspaper claiming that the Church of England ‘moving away’ from selecting school pupils based on religion was a creative piece of writing. So creative in fact that the Lambeth Palace issued a statement correcting the story which reads … The Archbishop himself douses the story in the Times with cold water …

The director of communications then went on to cite statistics about church schools and their roll in British education. These responses prompted confusion within the press as to what was said and what was important — other newspapers reported the change, the denials, both, or offered opinions as to why the change was a good idea.

All of which prompted musings on the roll of P.R. flacks or flaks.

Once a pejorative term, “flak” had its roots in the German word “fliegerabwehrkanone” — anti-aircraft gun. Its meaning as a noun has evolved over time to mean criticism: “I took a lot of flak over that statement”. And is also used an adjective to refer to a publicist who seeks to deflect adverse publicity.

“Flack”, the dictionaries tell me, has a close meaning but different history. Gene Flack, a 1930′s Hollywood press agent extraordinaire, is credited with being one source. Credit is also given to Tom Wolfe author of “Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers” — “flack” being slang for “flak catcher”. Traditionally, a flack created flack (a publicist created publicity) while a flak deflected flak (press officer deflected criticisms). Now the words are all but interchangeable.

In The Times interview aftermath we see both sides of the trade — deflection of an unpopular story (church schools changing admissions policies) and creation of an alternative (church schools are the best schools in Britain). But what did the archbishop actually say?

Ruth Gledhill published the transcript of the interview, indicating the archbishop’s flaks/flacks doth protest too much.

What you are seeing in the Church schools is a deeper and deeper commitment to the common good. There’s a steady move away from faith-based entry tests. They are not selective in terms of education. And they are focusing, particularly the new church academies – and you can see that in diocese after diocese – are focusing on the areas of highest deprivation where the Church school adds the most enormous value. … What is absolutely clear is home and family is essential. Really good school leadership is absolutely critical. It is not necessary to select to get a really good school. There are unbelievably brilliant schools that are entirely open to all applicants without selection criteria apart from residence, where you live, and which produce staggeringly good results.

Did Lambeth Palace and the Church of England press office mau-mau Ruth Gledhill? Did the flacks throw up a barrage of flak to deflect criticism and to offer an alternate interpretation of what the archbishop said? My sense of things is that Ruth Gledhill has been treated unfairly.

She reported what the archbishop said. Perhaps it was not what he meant to say?

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  • scott122

    Re. “…the Church of England was moving away from using faith as a criteria for admission to its church-supported schools…” Perhaps she should have also caught hell for using “a criteria” instead of “a criterion.”

    • Ruth Gledhill

      Ha ha. I never wrote ‘criteria’. ABC said criterion.
      It was all a rather surreal experience. Still can’t quite believe it in fact. Hey ho. On to the next one we go!


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