Faith Schools: Other Problems

Even if faith schools profess to be inclusive, there will still be large numbers of religious parents who choose a school that reflects their own religious beliefs. Faith schools are allowed to reserve a certain number of places for children of a particular faith (as much as children are capable of being of a particular faith – this is really the important question). It seems inevitable that faith schools will result in segregation of children (possibly just with parents of) different faiths. This already happens in Northern Ireland, where there are schoolchildren who have literally never spoken to children of ‘the other religion’, and that’s just between competing branches of Christianity. Is this really a situation we want to encourage?

I find it hard to think of any possible positive outcomes of religious segregation, unless you look from the perspective of the specific Church which ‘loses’ fewer children to other religions. Less disruption for pupils? Less bullying of outsiders? Maybe, but these are hardly justification for the kind of separation that would ensue. Bullying is a problem at any school, and something that can be decreased with effective policies. Disruption seems to imply that the role of education is simply to teach the National Curriculum, ignoring the role of schools in providing an environment in which pupils experience viewpoints different from their own. It’s obvious, I think, that growing up surrounded by people different from yourself results in more fully-rounded adults who are more tolerant of alternative ideas and world-views.

It’s been known for decades that applying even completely arbitrary labels to groups of people will foster hostility between the two. It is not at all unreasonable to say that Muslim-only schools would be easy targets for fundamentalists – you need just convince somebody that other people are the enemy, and in this case the separation from any other viewpoint has made this far easier.

Some claim that this kind of religious segregation happens anyway, and I’m sure there are places in which it does, but the role of education should not be to add to the problem. Quite the opposite, surely. The BHA has a large collection of quotes from people across the political and religious spectra who are concerned about the problems of segregating children in this way, including priests, ministers, MPs and people involved in race relations.

What of the argument that Church schools produce better results? Even if true, I don’t think this comes close to outweighing the other objections, but the evidence doesn’t support the claim. In A Better Way Forward, the BHA says [the full article contains the sources, which I’ve removed here for the sake of clarity]:

In every example of “better Church schools” that we have been confronted with (for example the London Oratory School, Catholic schools in Newham, St Christopher’s high school, Accrington), the schools turn out to have a better than average intake. Any selective school can achieve better than average results, and Church schools are often selective. On average, they take less than their share of deprived children and more than their share of the children of ambitious and choosy parents. This covert selection goes a long way towards explaining their apparent academic success. “Selection, even on religious grounds, is likely to attract well-behaved children from stable backgrounds,” said a spokesperson for Ofsted.

A study by think tank Iris (November 2005) found that many primary schools in England take in pupils whose family circumstances are very different from the neighbourhoods they serve. One school with only 10% of pupils on free meals was in a postcode with over 45%. Overall, non-religious community schools tended to have slightly more poorer pupils than expected. Church schools had fewer. Catholic schools, in particular, had almost 9% fewer poor pupils than in their neighbourhoods. Non-religious maintained primary schools have 20.1% of their pupils eligible for free school meals; Church of England schools have 11.3%, Roman Catholic have 15.6%, other Christian schools have 13.95%, and other religious schools 13.5% There is a similar pattern in maintained secondary schools, where nonreligious schools have 15.4% of pupils eligible for free school meals, while Church of England schools have 11.6%, Roman Catholic schools have 14.6%, other Christian schools have 6.8%, and other religious schools 18.5%

The Statistical Directorate of the National Assembly for Wales, faced with similar figures in 2001, concluded: “Analysis of levels of examination performance in comparison with levels of free school meal entitlement shows that once the different levels of free school meal entitlement are taken into account, the differences in GCSE/GNVQ examination performance and absenteeism [between Church and other schools] were not statistically significant.”

Simply put, if you control for free school meal entitlement, the difference goes away.

The current proliferation of Church of England schools is without doubt unfair to other religions. Even if you invoke the dubious ‘national religion’ argument, the statistics are still way out of proportion to actual churchgoers. Minority groups are currently justified in demanding they get publicly-funded schools, but the Church of England’s approach to education is positively benign compared to the idea of schools run by the more fundamentalist or evangelical religions such as Scientology, Seventh-Day Adventists, the Salvation Army or even the Roman Catholic Church. Faith schools would provide an easy opportunity for these religions to preach their message to far more (much more impressionable) people than would otherwise hear it – it would be very difficult to keep school numbers in proportion to believers, if that’s even something that makes sense. There is also reason to believe that some religions would actively discriminate by race as well as religion. This is not an argument for the expansion of faith schools – it simply shows the problems that will be faced if the current policies continue.

My intention over the last three posts has been to argue that faith schools are contrary to the rights of the individual, as well as impractical and potentially the source of many future problems. It seems very negative to argue without providing any alternative. I’ll try to provide one in the next post.

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