Faith Schools: Why are they unsuitable for religious education?

There are good reasons to think that any faith school, be it Christian, Muslim or even humanist (if such a thing existed), would fail to provide a suitable environment for children to make informed and fair decisions about religious belief. Some existing Foundation schools make no pretense at impartial religious education. The Emmanuel Schools Foundation, set up by millionaire evangelist Peter Vardy, goes so far as to teach creationism. I think everybody reasonable can agree this is clearly wrong. The objections must be aimed at the concept of a faith school which claims to be impartial and open to the idea of other faiths.

Faith schools would only employ teachers of the school’s particular faith. It is not disputed that teachers are powerful role-models, and children surrounded by teachers with identical beliefs would undoubtedly be influenced in that direction. While it is unreasonable to expect teachers to have no beliefs, a non-specific-faith school would offer teachers with differing viewpoints, so the influence would clearly be much reduced. As much as we may wish otherwise, there will also be strong influence from parents who have sent their children to a particular faith school because of their own convictions, and this would create a massive peer-pressure amongst the children hardly conducive to informed thought.

Some claim that it is healthy to teach children a viewpoint and then allow them to become critical of it. This seems to be very much counter to child psychology. Evolution has resulted in children believing and trusting what they are told, at least to a certain extent. Such information was and is necessary for survival – it’s not evolutionarily sound for a child to test for him/herself whether the cliff-edge is a dangerous place to walk. The ideas we pick up in childhood are powerful and difficult to reject. A common argument I’ve read is that that people can and have changed faiths after leaving faith schools, so what’s the problem with faith schools? But leaving a religion in such circumstances is hardly an easy process. Deciding to disagree with everybody around you is not something done lightly, and in many cases results in strong feelings of guilt and self-loathing. There are atheists who, despite having rejected the notions of any religion, still shudder at the concept of hell, so great is the influence of childhood indoctrination. It is also argued that many children will be subject to religious instruction at home, and this is undoubtedly true, but the purpose of state-funded education is not to simply obey parental wishes. The Humanist Philosophers again: “it should not be the task of educational institutions to make it more difficult for people to make up their own minds about the truth or falsity of religious beliefs.”

Even though the concept of an inclusive faith school has its problems, there are serious reasons to be concerned as to whether such inclusive schools would ever practically exist.

The 2001 Archbishops’ Council report remit was “to review the achievements of Church of England schools and to make proposals for their future development”.

The Church today still wishes to offer education for its own sake as a reflection of God’s love for humanity. But the justification for retaining and aspiring to extend its provision, as recommended in this report, cannot be simply this, when the state is willing to provide as never before and when there are so many calls on the Church’s limited resources. It is, and must be, because that engagement with children and young people in schools will, in the words of the late Lord Runcie when he was Archbishop of Canterbury, enable the Church to:

Nourish those of the faith;

Encourage those of other faiths;

Challenge those who have no faith.

As well as being ambiguous – ‘nourish’, ‘encourage’ and ‘challenge’ are all extremely broad terms – there is a clear imbalance in the list. If the Church wishes to provide for the autonomy of children it cannot be so skewed toward faith. The report also recommends, as a minimum ethos, that schools should:

  • ensure that the school is led by a headteacher who is committed, with the help of staff, to establish and maintain the Christian character of the school in its day to day activities and in the curriculum;
  • engage meaningfully in a real act of Christian worship every day;
  • offer a school life that incorporates the values of the Christian faith…[this refers to:

    In particular, it will be reflected in the everyday life of the school, quietly respectful of the beliefs of others and of other faiths, but confident in its own faith. Church schools will not actively seek to convert children from the faith of their parents, but pupils will experience what it is to live in a community that celebrates the Christian faith; to work within a framework of discipline and yet to be confident of forgiveness; to begin to share the Christian’s hope and the Christian experience that the greatest power in life and beyond it is selfless love.

  • ensure that religious education is given at least 5 per cent of school time and that the character and quality of religious education are a particular concern of the headteacher and the governing body;
  • observe the major Christian festivals and in schools in which other faiths are present ensure that those faiths are able and encouraged to mark their major festivals with integrity;
  • maintain and develop an active and affirming relationship with a parish church;
  • proclaim that it is a Church of England school on its external signboard and on its stationery and make appropriate use of Christian symbols
    inside and outside the school.

Even though it is claimed there will be no direct attempt to convert, the ‘values of the Christian faith’ statement suggests that pupils will come to Christianity as a result of being in a Christian environment. While not overtly evangelical, expressing it as an aim in this way suggests that open and informed education is not the primary goal of the school.

Church of England Bishops recently tabled an amendment to the Education Bill asking for the removal of the ban on discrimination in employment of non-teaching staff by reason of the staff’s “religious opinions or of [their] attending or omitting to attend religious worship”. If the school will not even hire non-Christians as staff, is it reasonable to expect fair treatment to non-Christian students? The General Secretary of the Church of England Board of Education said: “the Church intends that its schools offer distinctively Christian education and are open and inclusive of all who seek such education”. That’s very different from being inclusive of all.

While a benign interpretation of all these statements is possible, it’s something of a stretch. It’s easy to see why a Christian school would want to specify the above, but it would take heroic effort for it not to turn into indoctrination, especially if all of the staff genuinely believe that all the children should be Christian. There is no suggestion that non-Christians would have the option to abstain from prayer, for example. The report even suggests that Church schools be ‘quietly respectful of the beliefs of others and of other faiths, but confident in its own faith’. It is far from clear what form this would take. It is easy to get the impression that the Church is eager to take a privileged position when it comes to influencing the beliefs of students. While not necessarily typical, there have been examples of Church schools overtly discriminating against non-Christian pupils, one justifying its stance with the above report’s recommendation that “all Church schools must be distinctively and recognizably Christian
institutions”.

I’m not suggesting any insidious plot amongst the religious to indoctrinate children; the vast majority of the time, the intentions are honourable. But is it reasonable to expect people utterly convinced of one viewpoint to provide a truly balanced environment in which children can be autonomous? The Christian report provides a good insight into the ‘ethos’ behind church schools, and there is no reason to suspect that other religions would be any more likely to provide an impartial, fair environment.

Furthermore, there are strong arguments against the very concept of separating people of different faiths or non-faiths: next post.

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