A good question: Do faith schools have a future?
Each month we ask one question and get four answers.
This month: Do faith schools have a future?
‘Faith schools serve the whole community’
Shortly before Christmas, The Telegraph started an article saying: “The Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd John Pritchard, who is responsible for the education of a million children…” – no wonder I feel tired!
But in a sense it’s true. There are one million children in Church of England schools on Monday mornings. A quarter of all primary schools are the Church of England’s responsibility. We provide 22,500 foundation governors and our clergy put in a million hours of ministry in schools every year. It’s a huge commitment.
Our schools are not in fact “faith schools” as popularly imagined. They don’t exist primarily for the benefit of our faith’s children. They are “distinctive and inclusive” in the jargon – unashamedly Christian, and there to serve the whole community.
This commitment goes back to 1811, when Joshua Watson from Hackney set up The National Society for the Education of the Poor, with the goal of having a school in every town and village in the country. At one time, there were over 12,000. The state only came along to supplement our schools in 1870, formalised by the 1944 Education Act which established the “dual system” of church and local authority schools.
That dual system is breaking down with the advent of academies and free schools, which are really independent schools under contract to the Department for Education; 60% of secondary schools are now academies. But, this is a time of opportunity as well as challenge for church schools. We have the experience and the wisdom that others need in this brave new world.
So, do faith schools have a future? Absolutely. They are effective and popular, with more of them being rated “good” or “outstanding” by Ofsted than non-church schools. They offer a holistic experience that mirrors well what WB Yeats said about education, that it’s “not about filling a bucket, but lighting a fire”. They offer a framework of values, disciplines and habits of the heart that parents recognise as something they want for their children.
They aren’t exclusive. Some of our schools have almost 100% Muslim children. We have the same percentage of children with free school meals, and the same percentage of black and minority ethnic children. But, above all, we offer what John Milton called a “complete and generous education”, one that honours the uniqueness of every pupil as a priceless child of God.
The Rt Revd John Pritchard is Bishop of Oxford and chair of the Church of England’s board of education
‘Faith schools are sheer lunacy at a time when society is becoming more diverse’
I speak as someone who values faith – both my own and that of others. It is because of that religious perspective that I would be dismayed if faith schools continued in their current format, which is discriminatory and divisive.
Look at their admissions policies – many of them explicitly give preference to those of their own faith, even though they are state-funded and should be serving the wider community. What sort of society will this produce? A ghettoised one. This is sheer lunacy at a time when society is becoming more diverse; schools should be where children of all belief systems and none grow up together in mutual understanding.
It also militates against the command to “love your neighbour as yourself”, which you can only do if you meet your neighbour – not if you are kept separate.
Many people of faith feel embarrassed at the idea that a religious ethos can only be upheld through discrimination. What message does it give the children when they are divided from one another at the school gate?
There is also a problem over what is taught at many faith schools – some RE lessons ignore other faiths and even other denominations within their own faith that are considered wrong. It means the children are indoctrinated, not educated. Parents should be able to transmit their religious heritage, but it should not be done via state schools, it should be done through home life or via places of worship.
In this context, it is fascinating to see what is happening in Northern Ireland, where there is a surge in parents abandoning separate Catholic and Protestant schools and opting for integrated schools where children interact and learn together despite the religious divides. We should learn from the province’s solutions, not emulate its mistakes.
Still, some hopeful signs are emerging: In 2011 the Bishop of Oxford, John Pritchard, suggested that Church of England schools should limit the proportion of pupils they select on religious grounds to 10% of their intake. Last year the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, spoke approvingly of “a steady move away from faith-based entry tests”. At present, these are aspirations rather than realities, but they are clear recognition that being inclusive is a religious value, and that faith schools will have to change character to justify their future.
Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain is chair of the Accord Coalition, which campaigns for inclusive education
‘Faith schools lead to increased segregation’
Unfortunately, I do think faith schools have a future, because we live in a society where choice is considered an unquestionable benefit, and where “improving” education seems to be more about tinkering with the structures and ownership of schools than with improving the curriculum, school leadership and teaching.
Choice of schools, as with other goods, depends on spare capacity; this works well with, say, computers or baked beans, but few are prepared to pay for empty places in schools, with the result that popular schools, for whatever reason – accessibility, facilities, status, faith, league table position – become oversubscribed and can choose their pupils, not the other way round.
It surely can’t be right for children to be refused entry to their local, publicly-funded school because their parents are of the wrong or no religion, though, this kind of selection seems to be the reason that faith schools (or at least those in the less challenging catchment areas) have, amongst middle-class parents, become associated with well-behaved pupils and good results.
Selection and its accompanying hypocrisies aside, I think the expansion of faith schools over recent decades is unfortunate because it leads to increased segregation of minority groups and less contact between children of all religions and none. Our historic acceptance of large numbers of state-funded Christian schools has, understandably, led to demands from minority religions for their own state-funded schools, meaning that even the minority of faith schools with open admissions policies have little or no take-up from those of other religions or none and so remain mono-faith. Do we really want a society where Muslim or Sikh or Jewish children, for example, grow up without getting to know children from other religious or non-religious backgrounds – and vice-versa?
It would be difficult, in the current political and economic climate, to ban or nationalise all faith schools. But, if existing faith schools became truly inclusive – with no favouring of their own faith, a broad and balanced religious education and no opt-outs from the national curriculum – they could contribute more positively to a harmonious multicultural society (though these changes probably miss the point of faith schools for some of their supporters). And, if ordinary state schools made more efforts to accommodate minority religious needs, the desire to segregate children could wither away. Despite the difficulties, this widely-shared alternative vision for our future schools is surely worth working for.
Marilyn Mason was the British Humanist Association’s education officer from 1998 to 2006. She is now retired
‘It’s impossible to believe that we will be better served by exclusively secular schools’
The best case in a complex, multicultural society, is for children to have a right to an open future: A right not to have their own deepest value commitments determined by their parents or by other institutional forces beyond their control; a right to an education that opens them up to understand and reflect on traditions, practices and commitments beyond those in which their parents participate.
The fear people have about faith schools is that they will reinforce parental influence, thus inhibiting rather than expanding the child’s capacities for reflection. This fear is reasonable, and no doubt some faith schools fail some children by unduly reinforcing parental influence. But to make the case against faith schools decisive we need more arguments.
First: How do faith schools actually behave? Most of them do not aim to induct children into a narrow set of religious beliefs and practices, they see themselves as providing schooling with a spiritual dimension, seeking to instill an appreciation of their particular faith tradition, but also to foster respect for others, and non-believers. The practices and climate of the schools reflect these values, not the narrow indoctrinatory aims some secularists like to imagine.
Second, we should look at the values and practices of secular schools. If they set the bar high enough, by fostering careful and emotionally-sensitive critical reflection on the received opinions of home and society, then even many liberal faith schools will fall short. The research base on this question is small. In the absence of systematic research, experience suggests that many secular schools, far from setting the bar high, participate pretty unreflectively in the materialist values of mainstream society and leave parental influences largely unchallenged. De-funding faith schools, far from improving this situation, might make it worse, by reducing the diversity in and integration of the system.
Finally: What would happen to faith schools if the state system excluded them? The US model provides a dystopian possibility. Excluded from the public system, denied public funding, and self-consciously serving private, not public, purposes, far more religious schools in the US than in the UK fit the indoctrinatory model secularist liberals rightly reject. (Notably, most Catholic schools are exempt from this criticism.)
The architects of the UK parliament’s 1944 Act planned for all state schools to be secular. They compromised for financial reasons; the state had limited resources, and churches had the schools. But I find it hard to believe that the proper liberal secular goals would have been better served by the architects’ original plan, and impossible to believe they would be better served now by returning to it. Faith schools will be part of the system for a long time to come, and it’s a good thing too.
Professor Harry Brighouse grew up in the UK, but now resides in the US where he is professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is an atheist
This article was published in the April 2014 edition of Reform.