Thursday, 26 February 2009

My Talk at an Education for Tomorrow meeting

FAITH SCHOOLS: the case for and against

Education for Tomorrow

25 February 2009

Nick Pullar, National Secular Society (

Thank you for the invitation to come here today and talk to you about how secularists view faith schools.

First, I’d like to apologise for not being a teacher!  The National Secular Society is an organisation with a broad ranging focus: about how to bring fairness to a political system where there are many competing faith traditions, and a growing group of people with no faith – indeed, according to the Office of National Statistics Religious Trends survey, only 53% of people say they belong to a religion.  We are interested in every child having a good education, and the reason that I’m here is that we think that faith schools in particular are a barrier to this goal, so I really speak as a lay-person in terms of education although I am a parent so these matters concern me personally as well as theoretically, but as a member of the NSS my particular interest is in secularism.

Second, I’d like to define what we mean by secularism.  You may have got the idea from listening to Bishops or other religious figures that secularism is just a cover for atheism.  It is true that the National Secular Society is an organisation for non-religious people, but secularism is more than that.  Fundamentally, secularism is just the idea that the public square should be free from religious privilege.  As secularists, we believe firmly in the idea of freedom of religion – we think that it is a fundamental right of all people to be able to believe whatever they like, and to be able to freely practise that religion, so long as that practise does not impinge on the freedoms of others.  This includes the right to hold to an orthodox or even a so-called heretical religious view without interference from the state.  You don’t have to be an atheist to think that secularism is a good idea. There are many people who are secularists in this meaning of the term, but who are also Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims or Buddhists.  Now, I think it’s easy to see the attraction of secularism.  It means you are free with respect to your religious choices, and no-one from the government will tell you you have to stop, or worship in a way that’s different to how you want to worship.  But it also means that no one religion has a monopoly on faith or any sort of special privilege.  Every religious person believes their religion to be the one true way.  As an atheist, too, I think I’m right and they’re all wrong!  It is impossible to imagine that the members of these competing religions will all agree to allow a special privilege to just one of the other religions, so to stop religious conflict, or a constant racheting up of religious privileges, we think the best way is to treat all religions in just the same neutral way.

Of course, when I say that the government won’t intervene in religion, I hope it’s obvious that there are some pretty clear exceptions:  I don’t think that parents have the right to for example with-hold medical treatment from their sick child on the basis of their religion.  Jehovah’s Witnesses have a well-known aversion to accepting blood products on religious grounds, and adult Jehovah’s Witnesses are routinely allowed to die because of this belief, but their children are not.  Judges will readily grant court orders which have the effect of trumping the religious belief of the parent in order to save the life of a child.  Similarly, people who believe that paying income tax is against their religion pretty rapidly find that this belief does not in fact exempt them from the same laws as the rest of us.

Now one other thing that religious opponents of secularism say is that we want to get rid of religion all together – that religious people should not be allowed to have their religious conscience in public life.  This is quite wrong.  A common example brought up is religious members of parliament.  They say that we want to stop Catholic MPs from voting with their conscience on issues such as abortion.  This is not so.  What we oppose is the making of laws which have a religious foundation.  So, if an MP is opposed to abortion, they are perfectly entitled to that view, regardless of how it was arrived at, but they would not, on our view, be entitled to promulgate a law which stated that abortion would be illegal because the Pope says so.  The Pope is only a religious authority to Catholics, why should non-Catholics give even the smallest concern about the Pope’s view on abortion, any more than they give weight to the Grand Druid’s view on tax policy?  So, if a Catholic MP wanted to introduce a Bill about abortion, then they should find secular, i.e. non-religious grounds for other MPs to support them.  And this is how we find that debate generally goes in the Houses of Parliament.

And with that preamble out of the way, onto faith schools.  I’m sure you know the background.  One third of the schools in the country are faith schools.  These schools have a number of advantages that community schools do not have.  They are allowed to select pupils on the basis of their parent’s religion, and they are allowed to discriminate in the employment of their staff on the basis of religion.  We think both of these special privileges are iniquitous and generally lead of a worse outcome for education as a whole. 

Much is made of the better than average results that faith schools get – proponents of faith schools tell us with pride that this is due to the “special ethos” that only faith can provide.  But of course, we know that there are lies, damned lies and statistics, and we must be careful that the explanation for the success of faith schools holds up. 

Now, since we are comparing the population of faith schools with the population of non-faith schools, and we find that faith schools are on average better, do we also find that faith schools are similar to other schools, or are they different in some way?  Actually, we find that faith schools as a group have a number of important differences to the population of non-faith schools.  The proportion of children receiving free school meals in faith schools is less than in non-faith schools.  The number of students with special needs is smaller in faith schools than in non-faith schools.  Do these students, on average, do as well as their peers?  No, they generally perform worse, so if it is a fact (and it is) that faith schools have fewer poorer performing students, then naturally we should expect them to do better as a matter of course.  Furthermore, if one compares the population of non-oversubscribed faith schools, that is faith schools which do not get to choose their students, then we find that this subset of the faith school population performs just as well (or badly) as schools as a whole, so the application of a “special ethos” doesn’t help in this case.

In fact, the “special ethos” only seems to works in over-subscribed faith schools where there is a competition for places.  And who gets selected?  Naturally the best behaved and most likely to achieve good grades (which accounts for the lower than average levels of Special Needs and free school meal students in faith schools).  Now it gets more insidious.  Because the best students are creamed off by the faith schools, in those areas where there are over-subscribed faith schools, that will tend to make the community schools in that area worse than average, this leads to a virtuous circle for the faith schools, and to a vicious cycle for the community schools, as privilege and disadvantage are reinforced in the particular school communities.

So if there’s no overall benefit, then why persist with faith schools?  Well, because there is a benefit – to middle class parents who are religious, or who are happy to pretend to believe if their child will receive a better education.  Because the faith schools are selective, and as we have seen, because they use that selection to cream off the best students in their area, faith schools are often better than community schools.  Thus, children who go to faith schools receive a better education than they would at most community schools.  It’s called receiving a private education on the state.  I think this is why government is so in favour of faith schools – it is a benefit that middle class parents take advantage of.  If their benefit is threatened, those parents would punish the party responsible at the polls.  But is it fair?  Everyone pays taxes for a good education for their children, to have already privileged middle class parents receiving a better deal at the expense of their less well-off neighbours does not seem to gel with the ideals of Christian charity.

At the same time, Church authorities are hugely in favour of faith schools too.  They know their congregations are greying, and dying off, and that fewer and fewer young people are coming through to join the pews.  The best way for religions to propagate themselves is to capture children when they’re young.  The old Jesuit saying goes, “give me the boy until he is seven, and I will give you the man”. This accounts for the fact that faith schools are overwhelmingly primary schools.  It is obviously important that if you have a religion which you wish to grow, then the best people to expose it to are young children, who are not in a position to critically evaluate the claims of that religion, and who tend to believe everything they’re told by authority figures.  And in his first major speech on education, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams let the mask slip a little when he said that “The church school is a church” and he encouraged has church schools to hold confirmation and communion services.  So religions have a strong incentive to continue with faith schools as well.

Now, we’re not against teaching about religion in school.  We think that an understanding of the beliefs, practises of the various religions and learning about religious texts as literature are essential for an understanding of history and of different communities both here and abroad, but the confessional teaching of religion should play no part in the school experience.  Parents are free to introduce their children to their religion of choice, but this is something that should happen outside of school – at Saturday or Sunday school.  We should remember that for the children at primary school, there is no such thing as a Christian child or a Hindu child.  Children of this age are too young to properly understand what it means to believe in a religion.  The best we can say is that the children are children of Christian parents.  Labelling a child at such a young age seems a very cruel thing to do, as it gives the child a load of expectations and baggage about their perceived role in society will be which is contrary to the idea that religion should be freely chosen, not imposed.   

We are also opposed to the teaching of religious dogma in the guise of other subjects.  An NSS member recently contacted us with this story:

My son attends school in Salisbury. He is in Year 1. The school has a very strong Christian ethos. Yesterday, he told me that as part of the ‘light and dark’ science topic (which the school informed us he would be studying as part of science for KS1) he was taught how God created the earth and brought light to the world.

I hope you will agree that such a breach of trust is disgraceful.  There are many other stories like this.  We are familiar with the Academies in Gateshead teaching Creationism, and we are sure that in many schools, there is religious indoctrination incorporated into many lessons.  Science lessons should be for teaching about science.  Religious books have little or nothing useful to say about this topic, and schools should concentrate on how and why science is such a powerful explanatory tool rather than muddying the waters with the ideas of people who were basically completely ignorant about how the world really works.  This reminds me of a question: if all the works of science vanished tomorrow, we would find ourselves living in the Stone Age, but if all the works of all the theologians vanished, would anyone even notice?

One of the most telling points against faith schools relates to social cohesion – a big topic today.  Rather incredibly, the proponents of faith schools tell us that by siloing children into religious ghettos, this enhances social cohesion.  We can see for ourselves how separate education for different religions has worked wonders in Northern Ireland or Scotland, where deep sectarian fault lines exist and are perpetuated to this day, where children from the different communities have completely separate lives.

All the evidence is that if the goal is to help minority students integrate into a community, and for them to be accepted by the majority, then the only real way is to have them share experiences, especially from a young age.  That way, someone’s skin colour or beliefs becomes irrelevant in making friends and playing together. 

Other religions have started to demand more schools of their own faith, paid for by the tax payer, and the government is in no position to deny them without appearing to discriminate. All religious schools have quotas for children of other faiths and none – but only if the school is undersubscribed. In reality, how many non-Muslim parents would be happy sending their child to an orthodox Muslim school where their daughter would have to wear a veil, for example?

School should be a place where children can stretch themselves and learn about their talents and abilities.  Some patriarchal religious traditions frown on boys or girls learning certain skills or having certain experiences.  In faith schools governed by these traditions, would boys and girls receive the same education?  Perhaps a young girl is a gifted musician.  But her family belongs to a religious tradition where the playing of music is forbidden.  Should this girl have an opportunity to discover her talent, and then be able to decide for herself whether she should develop it, or should that decision be made for her, and she be kept in ignorance of what her potential is.  Sometimes a broad education is a way out of a narrow religious tradition.  By allowing some faith schools to teach only a restricted portion of the whole world of experience and knowledge, we can only make the world a poorer place for those young people who find themselves in that restrictive environment, and, if they only knew there was another way, might seek a different life.

Finally, I want to turn briefly to the effect of religious discrimination on teachers. Most teachers want to teach, to expand the horizons of their students and to bring knowledge where there is ignorance. If most of the schools in the local area are faith schools, which require a teacher to be a practising member of that faith, then this obviously presents difficulties for teachers of different faiths and of none. We believe that your religion is a private matter which has nothing to do with the teaching of mathematics, science or history. Yet teachers of these secular subjects can still be discriminated against by the people who run faith schools. The NSS has heard many stories from teachers who have lost their faith, or who never had one who need to lie to everyone around them in order to keep (or to get) a job in a school close by. Again, this is a scandalous situation, which would not be tolerated in any other sphere. We should take human rights seriously – all people should have the right to seek employment without a committee deciding if they are sufficiently orthodox to be allowed to teach in a particular school. The Star Chamber went out of use hundreds of years ago, except within faith schools, apparently.

In conclusion, we see that there is no magical “special ethos” that makes faith schools better.  In reality, faith schools are better for the same reason that private schools are better – because these schools have the power to allow the good students in, and to exclude those who might perform badly.

This is a benefit almost exclusively for the middle classes, but for which everyone needs to pay.  It is greatly in the interests of the various religions, because it secures them new blood, but again, at the expense of the education of the whole community and of the potential and individual conscience of the children involved.

Faith schools divide young people of different backgrounds one from another. An inevitable consequence of this is more distrust between communities, borne of social isolation.

Teachers are discriminated against if they have the “wrong” religion, or even if their practise of that religion does not meet the standards of their inquisitors, in violation of the norms of the rest of the world of employment.

What parents’ want, what we want, are good schools.  Good schools open to everyone in the community, regardless of the religion in the family.  Let’s all come together to learn about each other and the world.  I don’t know who would like to disagree with that ideal.

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