My Opinion: Faith Schools by Derek Kinrade
“There is a real danger that the growth in faith schools today will be blamed in 30 years’ time for the social disharmony then. It is not too late to reverse that trend, if we want a society that has diversity within unity, not at the expense of it.”
Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain
“...in a climate that is increasingly unfavourable to these [Christian] beliefs, it is a mistake to try to impose them on children, and to make them the basis of moral training. The moral education of children is much too important a matter to be built on such foundations.”
Margaret Knight: ‘Morals without religion and other essays’ (1955), from a BBC Home Service broadcast, January 1955.
This is not an attack upon faith, and my feelings are of profound regret rather than antagonism. People are entitled to believe anything they wish, however unlikely. My argument is that the propagation of belief systems has no place in our schools; that education is more properly directed to information that encourages open thought and questioning, not the indoctrination of young minds with narrow, sectarian doctrines. As Francis Westoby put it, some years ago, in a letter to The Guardian: “inhibiting their ability to think clearly about social and ethical problems, and to reach reasoned judgments about the natural world”. I am convinced that the encouragement of faith schools and their growth in this country, though generally seen as an expression of British tolerance and acceptance of diversity is in reality divisive.
I believe that subscribing to and promulgating traditional dogma and thinking within only a closed religious box does nothing for cross-cultural understanding and community cohesion. Moreover, and in particular, that beliefs which identify homosexuality as a sin and relegate women to institutional inferiority are not conducive to social progress. Integration and equality are generally accepted as desirable objectives, but some schools rooted in traditional values, although teaching the national curriculum and often setting good academic standards, appear also to be set on a different course, seeking to avoid what they see as cross-contamination, distancing their scholars from peers outside the faith and by implication encouraging the idea that their religious beliefs set them apart from and superior to the rest of society, in a special relationship with their God.
Of course, faith schools are not necessarily radical or fanatical. I attended a Church of England primary school in Toxteth where my only contact with religious ideas was a very occasional, wholly mysterious service in an adjacent church named after the obscure St. Silas. I cannot recall any classes in religious education. And today I accept that not all schools, although established by people of faith, are primarily bent on religious indoctrination. But the danger is that some faith schools can be breeding grounds for deep-seated prejudice, passing the bigotry, eccentricity and social isolation of one generation to the next. A More4News inquiry, some while ago, found that many faith schools, some of them state funded, still taught creationism!
There is an argument that it is a fundamental human right to be able to choose to educate your child in accordance with your own religious beliefs. But as someone close to me put it: “That supposes a right to pass on any tosh they see fit”. I would have said, less directly, that it ignores the right of children not to be brain-washed with the outlandish views of their parents.
Yet the determination of sectarian leaders to preserve their esoteric faith within families is intense and has indeed been encouraged by government; notwithstanding the challenge it presents to enlightened and broad educational principles: even to the point of tolerating the selection of staff and pupils according to their particular religious affiliations.
Roughly one third of our schools are now faith schools. As Polly Toynbee has commented, while pews empty, faith schools multiply. It is a curious paradox that while surveys and polls indicate that the population of the UK is increasingly secular, there is an inverse growth of schools of a religious character. Our coalition government demonstrated its intention to stoke this contradiction from the outset, announcing that it would “work with faith groups to enable more faith schools”. And the Department for Education announced (22 May 2013) approval of 102 new ‘free’ schools due to open from September 2014. They include 25 new religious schools. According to the British Humanist Society (BHA), in Northern Ireland more than 92 per cent of children attend either a Protestant or Catholic schools and there are no plans for change. In England almost all voluntary schools are said to have a religious character, as are 34 per cent of state schools. Their number has increased in recent years as successive governments have responded to the influence of religious groups in state-funded education, predominantly from the Church of England.
BHA’s aspiration, which I share, is simple. It wants pupils from all different backgrounds educated together in a shared environment, rather than separated according to the religious beliefs of their parents. An ongoing campaign seeks four basic aims:
- to end religious discrimination in school admissions.
- to end religious discrimination in school employment.
- to achieve progressive reform of the school curriculum, including religious, scientific and PSHE (personal, social, health and economic) education.
- to replace mandatory religious collective worship with inclusive assemblies.
At present, faith schools are allowed to discriminate to varying extents in their admissions, recruitment and employment policies. Many give preference to children from families that share their religion, or at the least who otherwise are religious believers. I regard this as discriminatory, inevitably leading to segregation within communities. It has also been asserted that the policies of some faith schools are such as to admit fewer children from poorer families – those entitled to free school meals. An article in The Guardian (5 March 2013), headed ‘Church schools shun poorest pupils’, declared that by shunning the poorest pupils in their area England’s faith schools failed to mirror their local communities. A similar exclusivity can obtain in matters of recruitment and employment: a rejection of applicants of no religion or the ‘wrong’ religion.
Most faith schools are allowed to frame their own syllabus for religious education and, unsurprisingly, often aim to instruct children in the doctrine and practices of a particular religion. Nor is this aspect of the curriculum subject to Ofsted inspection. They are also free to teach PSHE subjects from a religious perspective. This includes sex education. The BHA is particularly concerned that sex and relationship components – if included at all – may be taught in ways that are homophobic and gender discriminatory, violate human rights principles, or are otherwise inadequate (notably in relation to contraception and abortion).
I am very much in favour of diversity. We should be free to follow different political and cultural traditions – or not. But education is a special case. I believe that our children should be instructed from a broad, factual base, not narrowly and selectively directed along lines of esoteric, exceptional – and personal - beliefs.