Losing faith in state schools

A new campaign for the abolition of UK faith schools ignores the real crisis in the state education sector.

Neil Davenport

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Topics Politics

Militant atheists, along with prominent religious leaders, have launched a campaign to ban schools from selecting children on the grounds of faith. The Fair Admissions campaign was launched last week by a coalition of groups, including the British Humanist Association, the Lib Dem education association and Muslims for Secular Democracy. In the long term, the group would like faith-based selection schools banned and, in the short term, the admissions policies of faith-based schools changed.

The charge against selection on religious grounds is that it is ‘unfair’. Children who are not members of the ‘right religion’, or who are from secular backgrounds, are effectively barred from specific schools. For Fair Admissions campaigners, this is a legalised form of discrimination. Rabbi Jonathan Romain of the Accord Coalition likened faith-based selection to ‘the idea of no Catholics to be allowed in the army, no Jews to be social workers’.

In reality, the Fair Admissions campaign is the latest assault on traditional communities in Europe. In Germany, for instance, some states have outlawed circumcision of Jewish and Muslim boys on the grounds that it is a form of ‘child abuse’. In the UK, the Equalities Act provides a mechanism through which faith schools could be prosecuted for teaching beliefs that denounced homosexuality.

There is a curious paradox here regarding faith schools. On the one hand, respect for a plurality of beliefs, values, traditions and customs are the hallmarks of official multiculturalism. Anyone old-fashioned enough to be judgmental about other cultures can find themselves publicly ostracised or even on the wrong side of the law. But on the other hand, respect for diversity starts to fade whenever faith schools are mentioned.

It is true that religious schools discriminate against those of a different or non-religious background. For the Fair Admissions campaigners, this is incompatible with the values of a liberal society. Yet secularism is not defined by hostility towards traditionalist religions; rather, it is premised upon the freedom of religious worship from state interference and diktat. Contingent on that freedom is also the freedom of association – in other words the right to discriminate in your choice of associates. Indeed, the integrity of different religious groups has always operated on the basis of religious discrimination. Fair Admissions says it is not against ‘faith schools in principle’. But a faith school that is not allowed to discriminate on religious grounds would not be a faith school in any meaningful way. Fair Admissions is thus an attack on the freedom of religious worship which should be central to a liberal society.

In the context of education, a discriminatory policy is based not only on religious autonomy but also on parental autonomy. Parents often make choices over how they raise their children, and with whom they want their children to associate. Therefore choice of schools is part of a parent’s right to discriminate. If parents want to raise children in a traditionalist community based on traditional values, then they should have the freedom to make that choice. Calling for a ban on faith schools is merely the latest way in which parental autonomy is being undermined. In other words, religious parents can’t be trusted to pass on the ‘correct’ values, and must therefore be prevented from indoctrinating their kids with ‘weird ideas’.

Unfortunately for militant atheists, faith schools are widely regarded as centres of academic excellence, not as hotbeds of wacko beliefs. As it happens, faith schools have never been more popular – or oversubscribed to. Many largely middle-class parents have clearly concluded that the local faith school would be a better place for their kids than some hi-tech academy. Two thirds of the 50 best-performing primary institutions in recent years were Church of England, Roman Catholic or Jewish.

Fair Admissions counter that it is the socioeconomic, middle-class bias in faith selection that it aims to combat. Yet although faith schools are seen as ‘white flight’ enclaves, the most ethnically diverse schools in London tend to be Catholic. Still, middle-class parents’ familiarity with the education system does mean they will be especially aware of which are the best schools for their kids. But is attempting to dismantle a school system that obtains excellent results the answer? Why not utilise the ethos of faith schools across the state sector?

This, it seems, is another problem with the existence of faith schools. Their popularity is an implicit criticism of the content-lite education across the state sector. Indeed, rather than being the preserve of conservative, Telegraph-reading middle classes, it seems faith schools are more popular with secular leftists who acknowledge that their children will ‘get a better education this way’. As one secular parent told the Guardian: ‘I wanted [my daughter] to go somewhere that would nurture her intellect and her inquisitiveness.’ This raises a key question: why do secular parents have so little confidence in the state-education system?

Faith schools have successfully educated generations in the UK for over 200 years. Many parents who attended a Catholic or Jewish school as a pupil often recall that, for all the mysticism, they still received an appreciation of learning for its own sake. So when parents survey state education today, they see too many schools that seem to have abandoned the passing on of knowledge in favour of meeting health, inclusion and wellbeing targets.

Moreover, state-run faith schools, with their emphasis on teaching beliefs, values, customs and rituals, are slightly insulated from the instrumentalism prevalent throughout the rest of the state-education sector. This means that faith schools are better at encouraging ideas and concepts to be discussed on their own terms, rather than in terms of other quantifiable aims and objectives. So while detractors attack faith schools’ propagation of religious dogma, the schools actually nurture intellectual curiosity. A biography of maverick satirist Chris Morris reckoned that it was the influence of priests at his Jesuit school that led him rigorously to question everything.

The setting up of the Fair Admissions campaign is the latest attack on traditional communities and values in Britain. Under the guise of equality and anti-discrimination, Fair Admissions is an attempt to homogenise communities through state-sanctioned values and etiquette. In order to achieve such conformity, the autonomy of parents, and the values they want to pass on to their children, are also called into question. And if faith schools go the same way as grammar schools, it would be far easier for state comprehensives to avoid embarrassing comparisons and criticisms. Rather than carping about the admissions policies of religious schools, educationalists would be better off asking why so many secular parents have lost faith in the local comprehensive.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics teacher. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

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