Bastion of moral values or outdated aberration? Our panellists battle it outby Andrew Copson, Ruth Gledhill / September 18, 2014 / Leave a comment
This year is the 70th anniversary of the Education Act which, among other things, established the system of state-funded religious schools we currently have in England. “Faith schools,” as they’ve come to be known, have since become a source of discrimination within our educational system that is out of step with today’s plural Britain and out of keeping with the standards to which we should hold our public services.
Every school is different, but here are just a few key aspects of faith schools as a category that highlight their objectionable nature. First, they select pupils on the basis of their parents’ religion, which fosters and entrenches religious (and in many cases ethnic) divisions in society. It also perpetuates socio-economic disadvantage. When the first ever ranking of every mainstream state secondary in England was published last year, it found that religious selection strongly correlates with socio-economic selection. This is bad for social cohesion.
Religious schools can select both teaching and non-teaching staff on religious grounds, which is unfair on applicants and hampers the efficiency of the school. Headteacher posts in religious schools are more likely to have to be re-advertised than those in community schools.
Our state schools are public institutions; they should be open to all. Schools should also be places where minds are opened and children encounter ideas they may never come across in the home or elsewhere. The fact that faith schools are permitted to give religious instruction—rather than the balanced education about religious and non-religious worldviews that is increasingly given in community schools—is wrong. When I have visited religious schools I have encountered some good, open practice in teaching; but I have also seen lessons that are designed to transmit an uncritical acceptance of one particular worldview. The law allows this and many faith schools embrace it. I believe in the right of every child to grow up with access to a variety of perspectives so they can arrive at their own conclusions—and that is certainly what our state schools should be promoting.
On the 70th anniversary of the Education Act, one of the main achievements to celebrate must be the success of the nation’s faith schools. They are unpopular with many, but with the people who count most—parents—they remain hugely in demand. This is because they get results, but also because of a particular ethos that they offer; an ethos that is not necessarily absent in schools that are non-faith, but which is reliably present in many of those that are.
Discrimination is often used as an argument against faith schools. Yes, they do discriminate, but perhaps the assumption that discrimination is necessarily a bad thing needs to be challenged. Nature discriminates, by creating some people with high IQs, some with gifts for chess or sport. In a multicultural society, the ability to discriminate in an intelligent manner has never been more essential. The so-called Trojan Horse scandal—the alleged attempt, revealed in March, to instil an Islamist ethos in some Birmingham schools—occurred not in faith schools, but in secular ones.
Religious schools do select on the basis of parental religion—but private schools make a far more iniquitous selection, on the basis of parental income. Give a reasonably intelligent child a private education and the parent can hope to be buying him or her a seat on the board of a FTSE 100 company, or similar career success. If there is a socio-economic inequity in the faith school system, it is nothing compared to that perpetuated by the private school system.
It is an extraordinarily sweeping statement that religious schools entrench religious and ethnic divisions. There are nothing like the sectarian divisions in England that we have seen in Scotland and Ireland, yet faith schools in England are in huge demand. Nevertheless that argument is being taken seriously and the Church of England is making more places available to non-Anglicans.
Few believe the system needs no change at all. For example, the argument that selection of staff on religious grounds should be done away with is strong. But bad practice—the teaching of fundamentalist concepts or encouraging religious sectarianism—should not become an excuse for getting rid of the entire system. It is important to acknowledge just what faith schools offer parents that makes them so desperate to take advantage of them. We should change the system for the better, rather than get rid of it altogether.
We know what it is that faith schools offer parents: social exclusivity without the fees. The latest survey of parents considering a school for their child shows 77 per cent of them are doing so for academic reputation, 58 per cent for location and 41 per cent for discipline. Only 5 per cent say it is because of faith. As academic attainment is maintained only by the social selection that follows religious selection, this cannot be an argument in favour of faith schools.
Anyway, I question whether parents are the only people who count. Our schools are not just educational institutions to benefit parents; they are also public institutions and the goal of having an open society is one that it is legitimate for us to pursue. More importantly, schools are for children, and if we know that they are better prepared for life in mixed environments then that should weigh with us.
The argument that we need to deal with independent schools before faith schools ignores at least some facts. Sixteen per cent of children at state schools are subject to religious selection criteria that lead to socio-economic segregation. This compares with 7 per cent in independent schools. Nature discriminates, you say, as if that justifies further exacerbating discrimination. Deliberate and knowing discrimination is precisely the opposite of natural diversity and the comparison is false.
Under recent pressure, it may well be that some Anglican schools are opening up a little, but many are not, and those of other religions and denominations not at all. The Church of England has fought hard against any change in law that would compel the sector to be more inclusive. It seems to me that religiously selective admissions practices, staff policies and biased curricula are in the very nature of faith schools, not things that can be separately eliminated.
The point that just 5 per cent of people send children to faith schools because of faith is, in my view, an argument in favour of them. It means that the risk of sectarian-style indoctrination is slim, because it is other factors that parents are more interested in and will therefore encourage in their children. Church schools do not only serve white middle-class pupils; many have a high percentage of pupils of other faiths; and some Church of England secondary schools even have a uniform code to accommodate hijabs.
I agree faith schools might tend towards “exclusivity without the fees” but that is social exclusivity in the broadest sense. A lottery is the only truly “fair” system for school admissions—otherwise you are looking at postcodes, and that is far more discriminatory because of variations in house prices. The Church has a tradition of catering to the marginalised, after all, and their schools are now providing the kind of quality education, in many areas, for free, that only the rich can otherwise afford. The answer is not to abolish faith schools but to raise the standard of non-faith schools to match them.
The number of faith schools is growing—about one million children now attend Church of England schools alone—and this is a response to demand. Surely there are other areas that should be the focus of abolitionist energy, rather than these successful models of education. Of course parents are not the only people who count: the children count more than anyone. But our society is not one where decisions about children are handed over to some specialist party of the state. Parents in Britain still have agency. They are even allowed to take their children out of school and educate them themselves.
I don’t defend discrimination on the basis that nature discriminates, but argue that discrimination is inherent in nature. It will happen, whatever we do. The right response is to give all children as many opportunities in as diverse a manner as possible. The best faith schools show themselves well-equipped to do this. Take these schools out of the state sector and demand for what they offer will move to the private sector—freer from the rigours of state inspections, freer to foster exclusivity. The state sector is the best place for them because they are inspected thoroughly and have to adhere to very high standards, which have now been raised to a new level.
You are wrong in what you say about social selection. The international evidence shows that school systems that have more selection in their admissions get worse results overall, and this is principally because those from more deprived backgrounds perform worse. Taking away faith-based admissions might exacerbate things like house price-related discrimination, but this will be a much smaller inequity than that caused by religious selection.
Hugely negative though the contribution of faith schools to social and economic injustice is, perhaps this one issue has diverted us too far, so I want to return to the most basic of reasons why faith schools should go.
Our state schools should be institutions where children from diverse backgrounds come together, to learn from and with each other, and have their minds opened and their horizons expanded. In our current state system, there are no schools other than faith schools that can perfectly legally discriminate against pupils in admission on religious grounds; discriminate between potential staff on religious grounds; and teach an ideologically-slanted curriculum that narrows children’s horizons (having them in the state sector rather than the independent one doesn’t help this). One or two anecdotes about nominal faith schools that do otherwise are an insignificant contribution to this debate.
In the first 15 years of this century, the proportion of secondary pupils in religious state schools has gone up by 20 per cent. Contrary to your assertion, there is no evidence whatsoever that this is in response to demand, and in the context of our social diversity this growing segregation can only cause harm.
No apologies if this is annoying to a humanist, but in closing I wish to resort briefly to prayer. The so-called “Serenity Prayer” encourages acceptance of the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can and wisdom to know the difference. Wisdom, a concept explored at great length in the Bible and other spiritual and secular literature, must be applied here if secularists are not to be guilty of their own version of that kind of fundamentalism which is so unattractive in religious extremists.
There is a sense that those opposed to faith schools are a little blinded perhaps by their opposition to faith itself. To state categorically that faith-based admissions might exacerbate things like house price-related discrimination, but that this will be a much smaller inequity than that caused by the religious selection itself, is to make the kind of sweeping, faith-based claim towards an unknown future that secularists accuse the religious of propagating. There is also little evidence to support the claim that the contribution of faith schools is adverse, never mind “hugely negative,” to social and economic justice.
There is some validity in the argument against legal discrimination in parts of the system, and some of these issues have started to be addressed across the sector. What is indisputable is that these schools work. It would be so wonderful if the passion engaged in attacking them were put instead towards bettering those schools that are failing the children they teach, if the energy engaged here were to be directed towards a positive, rather than a negative.