We are what we are because it is what the Lord has made us

You may not have heard, but if you want your children to get an Eton College education, you can now send them to Oldham, Dudley or Middlesbrough. Star Academies and Eton College have announced a plan to bid to open three academic sixth form free schools in those towns. Which, if nothing else, strikes a further blow against the view that our schools are too terrible to send any of your darling little ones into.

Of course, our existing schools are perfectly fine. Several of them do quite well. And aside from schools, believe it or not, we have running water and t’internet too. Most of us even have inside toilets! In fact, such are some of these things that our house prices have rocketed in recent years. The push towards working from home, thanks to COVID, means that many people are able to live where they want or buy bigger homes in cheaper areas that bear no relation to their daily commute. And, of course, if you have a tram into Manchester City Centre nearby, you can go in as and when easily enough.

Whilst all these things appeal to certain people, I fear the losers will be the poorest in our area. On the street where I live, several of my neighbours earn their living cleaning wheelie bins, driveways and gutters. There are quite a lot of vans around. Whilst some of those folks will be pulling in some significant coin – I can’t remember the last poor plumber or electrician I met – many are not and some of these dudes bought their houses ages ago, when they were broadly affordable. There is little chance many of the people who live on my street at the moment would be able to afford any of these houses if they were trying to buy on their wages today. The prices around our estate have risen astronomically over the last few years, with some easily putting £25k per year onto their value on average. The young poor in our community have little chance at owning a home at these sorts of prices.

Similarly, whilst Star Academies coming into the area to help people get to Oxbridge sounds great, it is hard to see that it won’t follow a similar trajectory. Those with sharp elbows and an obsessive interest in the education of their children are most likely to find their way into such a venture. It is already the case that the top performing schools in the area – faith schools at that – have even in recent years preferred to welcome those who meet the tight faith criteria from further afield than to serve those who live on their doorstep. When the comprehensive system manages to select by money – simply raising the house prices in the areas with the most sought after schools, pricing out the poorest from entry – certain kinds of selective school manage to nudge out the poor on their own doorstep in favour of those who meet their selective criteria further afield.

In both cases, it is those with money and an aptitude to play the system who gain the most. It is all very well sticking a Star Academy and Eton College sixth form in Oldham, and boasting about the children sent to Oxbridge from the area, but if they are drawn from the high performing schools already, what have we achieved? If pupils are viewed as ‘from the area’ when actually they just bus in for school, how far have we really served the local working class of Oldham and what have really done for the cause of social mobility?

I am minded to think we sometimes fall into the same trap as churches. I was talking with somebody the other day and they were commenting, somewhat ruefully and entirely understandably, that when you look at it, our membership consists only of about 5 people born and bred in Oldham. It prompted me to go an look at our membership list to see what our makeup actually is. We have a couple of folks beyond the initial 5 who have been here so long and moved here as children that they must count too. But even with them, only about a quarter of our church are proper Oldhammers. It would be easy to look at that and say we have largely done the same thing as these schools – we have just bussed in people from elsewhere to the exclusion of proper locals.

Just over 50% of our congregation are foreign born. Whilst that includes West Indians, Americans, Africans, Eastern Europeans and folks from the Middle East – and some of them are only represented by one person or couple – that isn’t insignificant. Around a quarter of our membership are Brits who are not originally from Oldham and do not have a longstanding connection to the area. Taken together, we are c.50% British and c.50% foreign. We are a quarter indigenous Oldhammers, a quarter British from elsewhere in the country and half from different nations altogether. But majority Oldham born and bred we most certainly are not.

I’m not, if I’m honest, entirely sure what lessons (if any) to draw from that. One could argue that we are what we are – much like the “successful” schools in the area – to the detriment of indigenous locals. One could equally make the case that we are what we are because it is a reflection of the multicultural community that we work in. Having said that, Pakistani and Bangladeshis – who make up the majority of our immediate area – are not found within our membership which tells you something else yet again.

In the end, I suspect we are what we are by God’s grace and in his providence. The people we have are those he has saved. They are the ones he has brought. We are what we are because it is what the Lord has made us. And I’m not sure we can say much more than that. But if you are sticking away because you want your kids to go to Eton, there’s no need to do that anymore.