Faith Schools or Secular Education

Margaret Nelson at Suffolk Fabian Society, 8th March 2005

While a vocal minority in our country is campaigning for publicly-funded segregated education in faith schools, the Integrated Education Fund  in Ireland is campaigning just as hard for children to learn together in the same schools.

The IEF says that between 1969 and 2001 over 3500 people have died and many others have been injured physically and mentally as a result of the bigotry and sectarianism in Northern Ireland. The 2001 census showed that the population of Northern Ireland is 53% Protestant and 44% Catholic. Several generations of Catholic children have never had anything to do with Protestant children, while Protestant children have never knowingly spoken to Catholic children, apart from exchanging abuse.

A small group of parents and others believed that things would never get better unless their children went to school together and stopped demonising one another. They called themselves ‘All Parents Together’ and founded the first integrated school, Lagan College, in 1981. They took out personal loans and ran jumble sales to raise the money for that first school, in a scout hut on the outskirts of Belfast, where they had 28 pupils. Now there are more integrated schools, but still only 10% of the total in Northern Ireland, and they are still forced to raise funds themselves.

The US Ambassador to Ireland, Richard Haas, attending a function in Washington earlier this year, said, “Young children of different traditions need to develop the habit of sitting side-by-side as students so that they can work and live side-by-side in later life.” The Voices Behind the Statistics report, published last October, studied young people’s views of sectarianism. Sixth-formers from across the religious divide said integrated schools would help foster better community relations.

About four and a half years ago, when there was racial unrest and rioting in Bradford, Oldham and Burnley, I remember hearing a northern imam complaining that his community wasn’t keen on sending its children to RE lessons because they were being ‘confused’ about what to believe. ‘We are having great difficulty forming their beliefs,’ he said. This made me deeply angry. No one has any right to form a child’s beliefs. As Professor Richard Dawkins wrote in the Observer in December 2001, there are no Catholic babies, or Protestant babies, or Muslim babies, or Hindu babies – they are all just babies. When my son was born, no one said that he was an Atheist baby. Dawkins wrote,

‘Where we might have said, “Knowing his father, I expect young Cowdrey will take up cricket,” we emphatically do not say, “With her devout Catholic parents, I expect young Bernadette will take up Catholicism.” Instead we say, without a moment’s hesitation or qualm of misgiving, “Bernadette is a Catholic.” We state it as a simple fact even when she is far too young to have developed a theological opinion of her own.’

As Dawkins points out, we may be strongly influenced by our parents in all manner of things, from bird-watching to book-loving, but reasonable parents do not assume that our children will be bird-watchers or book-lovers, whatever we might hope for. The preposterous presumption made by advocates of faith schools is that it is acceptable to label children by faith, without their comprehension or consent.

Let’s get the definitions right, shall we? ‘Faith’ means having a strong belief in something, especially without proof. ‘Belief’, in this context, means accepting that something is true or real, such as the existence of a god or gods, again without proof. So please tell me how one can form a child’s beliefs, especially a child who is too young to make a critical judgment about what is or isn’t true? This is not education – it’s indoctrination, the antithesis of education.

After the northern race riots in the summer of 2000, the British Humanist Association  published the following:

There is often a gulf between the religious segregation that older generations and ‘community leaders’ want, and what young people in those groups want, as Lord Ouseley’s report on Bradford  notes: ‘What was most inspiring was the great desire among young people for better education, more social and cultural interaction … Some young people have pleaded desperately for this to overcome the negativity that they feel is blighting their lives and leaves them ignorant of other cultures and lifestyles… Young people realise that being taught in religious ghettos is not a good preparation for life in a multi-cultural society. The Ouseley report also observes ‘signs that communities are fragmenting along racial, cultural and faith lines. Segregation in schools is one indicator of this trend…There is “virtual apartheid” in many secondary schools in the District.’

So why, with all the evidence of the deep divisions created by segregation, have the main British political parties said they support the creation of more faith schools? There are several reasons, none of them good enough to justify this daft policy.

We’ve already got a lot of faith schools – Anglican and Catholic – for historical reasons. We have an established church, which has had considerable influence. In the first third of the nineteenth century, voluntary church societies developed a national system of elementary schools. The Elementary Education Act of 1870 created a compromise between the church, which wanted to extend its influence, and radicals like Jeremy Bentham, who wanted a totally secular system. Voluntary schools continued with grants-in-aid, while local school boards ran state schools. The system remained more or less the same until the 1944 Education Act, which strangely specified that only one subject was compulsory in the curriculum; religious instruction, now called ‘education’. Despite declining church attendances (or perhaps because of them), the 1988 Education Reform Act (introduced by a Catholic Education Minister) set the clock back by insisting that religious worship ‘wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character’ is now compulsory in school assembles. This legislation has been widely flouted. In areas like Luton, where schools had worked hard to reflect the multicultural nature of their catchment areas in assemblies, it was perceived as unworkable.

Now the minority faiths are demanding parity with the so-called ‘Christian’ majority, and with an election looming the party leaders are anxious to get as many votes as possible. Labour used to be able to rely on most Muslims to vote for them, until George and Tony invaded Iraq. Not to be outdone, the Tories and Lib Dems are anxious to tell faith organisations that they offer no threat to their plans for schools.

I said ‘so-called’ majority because I doubt that many of those who described themselves as Christian in the last census actually know or care what that means. Few nominal Christians go to church and most find it difficult to explain what they mean by being Christian. Various surveys have demonstrated, for example, that few nominal Christians believe in the virgin birth or the resurrection. Just about the only things that many nominal Christians have in common is a belief in an afterlife (which isn’t exclusively Christian) and the false notion that being religious is synonymous with being good, which is deeply insulting to decent atheists and agnostics. Interestingly, the last census showed that 390,000 people in England and Wales regard themselves as Jedis, or Jedi Knights – may the force be with them.

We’re getting some very mixed messages, it seems to me, about education and faith. The new National Framework for Religious Education in the curriculum aims to be ‘broad and balanced’. As a co-opted member of Suffolk’s Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education, I can assure you that, despite some resistance, we encourage Suffolk teachers to provide religious education, not indoctrination – though I still come across worrying examples of bad practice and the subject is poorly resourced. How then is the proliferation of faith schools compatible with a ‘broad and balanced’ approach? Faith schools inevitably have a partial approach to religious education.

The problem with religious education is that, in many cases, there’s an underlying assumption that it’s a good thing to be religious, despite the fact that religions contradict one another and can be very intolerant of one another. It’s definitely not a good thing to be a Muslim, for example, wherever fundamentalists regard leaving the faith as a capital offence. I know that things have changed since I was at school. We didn’t learn about other cultures and religions; we learned how to be good little Christians – they failed with me. Many RE teachers still see that as their role. If taught properly, RE can be enlightening. If not, it can put children off religion for good. You might expect me to say that this is a good thing, but I feel this is just a wasted opportunity to explore the fascinating background to religion and religious belief – the whys and hows. I visit schools to talk to children about Humanism as part of their RE courses, and fifteen and sixteen-year-olds have spoken about feeling ‘got at’ by religious people. They’re often deeply suspicious of not so subtle attempts to persuade them that religion is ‘a good thing’.

If it were up to me, I’d scrap religious education altogether as a separate subject and include the study of religion in other subjects, such as history, social studies, and art. As long as it is a separate subject, it will be regarded as having a special status, and won’t be taught with the same intellectual rigor as other subjects. There’s little time given to the study of how religions developed in a social and historical context, for example. The subject attracts teachers with their own agenda, especially in primary schools. A friend who teaches Key Stage 1 volunteered to co-ordinate RE teaching in her school when there was no one else to do it. Her offer was greeted with hoots of derision because the other staff knew she’s an atheist, and they didn’t think an atheist could or should teach RE. The job was given to an evangelical Christian.

Instead of teaching RE as a separate subject, it would be better if philosophical enquiry was included in the curriculum, teaching children to think, and covering logic and ethics as they develop. This would, however, be resisted by fundamentalist religious organisations who aspire to have their own schools. Thinking and belief aren’t compatible.

Many defend faith schools by insisting that they have a positive ethos and get good results. Any school, religious or secular, can develop a positive ethos. It’s an insult to non-religious teachers – and there are many – to suggest otherwise. As for the results; religious secondary schools are, on the whole, selective. Some parents will become devout Christians overnight or move house to secure a place for their darlings. Children of pushy and ambitious parents will tend to do better than others, so they push up a school’s ratings. An Ofsted spokesperson wrote in the Times Educational Supplement in 2001 that ‘Selection, even on religious grounds, is likely to attract well-behaved children from stable backgrounds.’ Such schools have fewer pupils receiving free school meals and fewer statemented or non-statemented children with special educational needs. There are, however, religious schools that don’t do well; schools like the Catholic one where headmaster Philip Lawrence was murdered are sometimes put on special measures.

In an article written in July last year the BHA asserts that ‘Choice’ in education creates more problems than it solves. There could be more state-funded academies being run by people with very eccentric views, such as the creationist millionaire Sir Peter Vardy, and more state-funded schools being run by faith groups, thus separating and segregating children according to the religious views of their parents, which is inconsistent with Government commitments to improving social cohesion. They also said that more schools will choose their intake and exclude many children on grounds of belief or aptitude, despite Tony Blair’s statement at the Fabian Society seminar on 7th July that ‘We want parents to choose schools, not schools to choose parents.’ Then we have the ridiculous waste of money and environmentally unfriendly spectacle of more children travelling to distant schools in cars or requiring subsidised school transport to get to the schools of their choice. Suffolk County Council decided last year to stop providing subsidised transport in such cases, because the cost was draining our education budget. The House of Commons Education and Skills Committee report on the Draft School Transport Bill (published on 7th July) pointed out that the stated objective of encouraging more children to walk or cycle to their local school ‘does not sit easily with Government policies to increase diversity in schools and to allow for the expression of parental preference: an approach that encourages greater mobility.’ Then, to have choice, you must accept that some schools will have empty places – how does that make sense? – while more popular schools won’t be able to expand because of planning constraints. We simply can’t afford to encourage this sort of crazy marketplace mentality, economically or educationally.

I predict that it’ll be a while before it sinks in with our political leaders, currently trying to outdo one another as ‘faith-friendly’ to religious leaders with ambitions to open schools at public expense, that faith schools are divisive, expensive, an infringement of the human rights of children, and a generally bad idea. By the way – who decides what a ‘faith’ is? If they can take the millionaire Peter Vardy seriously, with his creationist schools, why not equally crackpot ‘faiths’ – when will we have the first Flat Earth school, or the first Satanist school? And there are plenty of zealots like that Bradford imam who’d love to have control over their own schools to prevent children from learning anything that conflicts with their beliefs, like sex education or gender equality.

In 2001 the Humanist Philosophers’ Group published an excellent booklet – Religious Schools: the case against. They concluded:

  1. In a free and open society, beliefs about fundamental religious and value commitments should be adopted autonomously and voluntarily;
  2. Neither parents nor faith communities have a right to call upon the state to help them inculcate their particular religious beliefs in their children, nor further their own projects, customs or values through their children;
  3. In a pluralist, multi-cultural society, the state must promote the tolerance and recognition of different values, religious beliefs and non-religious beliefs.

So no faith schools thank you. Let’s just have secular education for all.

July 2012: The BHA publication, ‘Religious Schools – the case against’, appears to be out of print.