UK Politics

Oppose “faith” schools

Nick Cohen argues today for the rolling back of faith schools.

There are no legal or moral grounds for denying Muslims, Sikhs or Hindus faith schools of their own. Indeed, 150 Islamic schools are on the way and more will follow.
When they arrive, British education will be divided along lines of religion and race, the two most toxic causes of strife on the planet.
The only escape from a sectarianism is to establish a secular education system where all are welcome regardless of colour or creed.

There are three reasons that some parents favour faith schools.

The first is that many religious non-Christian families do not want their children educated in a school which holds the “act of worship” of a “broadly Christian” nature, which is mandated by the Education Reform Act 1988. The Act affords parents a limited right to withdraw their children from the assembly, publicly marking them out as non-believers: but that is hardly a solution. In any event, parents who do not believe in God at all are left wholly in the lurch. The solution, surely, is to take religion out of schools altogether.

The second reason is that parents want school to form part of the acculturing process by which their religious tradition is transmitted. I can see why religious people might want the state to help them to make their children good Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus and so on. If parental choice in education is the key driver, then why is it restricted to choice of religious ethos: which is not the most important consideration for the majority of even religious families when choosing a school? Rather, isn’t the “faith school” issue simply a tiny part of a wider argument for parental control over education. If parental choice is the issue, isn’t the solution to argue for school vouchers or some other device which gives parents maximal control over the sort of school which their children attend?

The final, and worst argument is that particular faith schools in some parts of the country achieve better results and enforce higher standards of behaviour than the other schools on offer. This is the main reason that people I know have sent their children to faith schools. Now, it may well be that faith schools actually do better than non-faith schools generally: but does that success really result from the injection a little bit of God in the school day.

The most depressing part of the existing faith school system is that it gives religious institutions a distorted power over the lives of families. I know a number of people who have been so desperate to get their children into the local faith school, which happened to be the best school out of the ones available, that they spent every Sunday in church, despite not believing in God. I know one woman – a catholic married to a muslim – who takes her family to a church where the priest takes a register of attendence which is then handed to the school before the admissions decision is made. It is generally understood that if you start to miss services, your child will not get in. The woman in question works extremely long hours, and has her Sunday destroyed by the need to spend the morning genuflecting. This is pretty rich: considering that she has already funded the school through the tax which she pays.

Moreover, those who involve themselves in religious politics and who therefore have an important say in the schools run by their faith are often at the more extreme end of the religious spectrum. They are, after all, people in whose lives religion plays a central role. Bringing these sorts of people into partnership with the state, and giving them public money to play with is not, in my view, a particularly sensible idea.

As a footnote, I have to admit, it does slightly worry me that the Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, “receives spiritual support” from Opus Dei: a particularly culturally conservative religious group whose members, from Franco onwards, have shown a notable interest in public life and policy formation. I am, however, reassured by her backing of stem cell research, which indicates that the Education Secretary is able to keep what must be strong personal convictions separate from the process of making public policy. That is a good precedent. Religion and politics make poor bedfellows. The Government has sensibly kept religion out of science funding, and should also keep it out of education.

If parents want to bring their children up in a religious environment, they have every right to do so in their homes and through institutions which are funded by their Churches, Mosques, Synagogues and Temples.

The inculcation of faith should be no business of the State.