On the subject of faith schools, the British Humanist Association (BHA) has had its righteous nose put out of joint. According to new league tables, faith-based primary schools have dominated in literacy and numeracy compared with non-denominational state schools. Faith schools – which make up just a third of primaries nationally – were significantly over-represented in the list of the schools that registered ‘perfect’ results.
According to the BHA, this had nothing to do with the teaching or ethos of faith schools and everything to do with the ‘unrepresentative’ intake of their local communities. BHA campaigns officer Richy Thompson claimed: ‘For most parents, the most important thing when picking a school for their children is the academic performance. I’m sure that we’ll continue to see that as long as faith schools are allowed to religiously select in their admissions, they will be quite popular, not because of their faith but because of the fact they can select.’
So, according to the BHA’s long-rehearsed prejudices, faith schools are predominantly made up of well-to-do middle-class kids. This, the BHA claims, means faith schools will automatically do better than state schools, which have a higher proportion of poorer children. For a supposedly humanist organisation, the BHA clearly holds a very dim view of kids from less well-off backgrounds. As it happens, children from poorer backgrounds are thriving at faith schools, indicating there is more going on here than parental hothousing and private tuition. A recent report by the Document Summary Service and the University of Bristol suggested that children at faith schools tend to do well because they are part of a recognisable community with shared values and a strong belief system. Far from churning out brainwashed religious nutjobs, faith schools can often provide an invaluable framework for intellectual development.
Of course, it is precisely because faith schools teach the ‘wrong’ type of values and beliefs that they are in the cross-hairs of anti-human humanists. Dubious concern for the poor and faux handwringing over ‘social exclusion’ merely veil the BHA’s broader attack on parents and communities who want to educate their children as they see fit. If faith schools were doing particularly badly, the BHA would no doubt cite this as proof that religious types can’t be trusted to educate the next generation. Either way, faith schools can’t win. This is because it is the very notion of faith, and passing traditional beliefs on from one generation to the next, that the BHA seeks to stamp out. Forget all the blather about ‘disadvantaged kids’ and ‘elitism’, there is no genuine concern here for improving the education system right across the board. If there were, educationalists would surely be asking why the success of faith schools cannot be replicated elsewhere.
Neil Davenport is a writer and politics/sociology teacher in London.