On faith-based schools


With the expansion of faith-based schools, politicians have a duty to put in place better safeguards for those who choose to turn away from/reject the faiths that they have been brought up in.

Some of you will be familiar with the reforms on free schools that Michael Gove has been pushing forward. Free schools and faith-based schools are not inherently the same thing. However, the policy of the former allows more of the latter (or rather makes it easier for more of the latter) to be set up.

The key issue around free schools is that of local authority control. This is not new. I remember while at primary school regularly seeing posters up all over the place saying “No to GM schools” – this being before the “No to GM crops” – something completely different. The Grant-Maintained debate of the late 1980s was a precursor of what we have today. Weaken local authority control and give greater power to those organisations that run schools day-today in order to improve ‘standards.’

In the drive to improve standards, there has been ongoing debate about whether faith-based schools achieve better results than their non-faith counterparts. Detractors point to covert (or even overt) selection while supporters may point towards something unique about their religion’s ethos that helps deliver better exam results.

My own position as far as principle is concerned is in favour of secularising our entire education system. (Similar to the top lines of the BHA). Take faith institutions out of them completely. I’m also pragmatic enough to know that such a move is unlikely to happen in my lifetime in part because churches have been running schools and providing education up and down the country for centuries. Overturning centuries of history is not something that is done lightly or overnight – not least without doing some damage to what may otherwise be in many cases very settled communities. I grew up in one such community – I blogged about it just before Christmas. Where the interaction between church, school and other outside activities is relatively benign – as it seemed to be during my infant school days, no real problem. A sing-song on Sundays, somewhere to have Christmas concerts and somewhere to have organised/supervised fun and games (we’re talking under 10s here) isn’t really a problem. But where you have institutions trying to separate people from each other on grounds of religion, then I have a problem. I should know – I grew up with this, having to go to a church separate to that which my primary school was originally attached to. How do you reasonably explain to a child under 10 the reasons why you go to a different church to your friends are because of differences between Catholicism and Anglicanism?

Coming back to the policy of promoting faith-based schools, this is not a party-political issue. It’s one that politicians put down to one of conscience. I recall Peter Hain MP discussing this in Parliament many years ago when defending Labour’s policies on faith-based schools. You could say that the key difference between what Labour had and what Gove is proposing is scale. Blair’s administration established some new principles (whether bringing in the private sector to help deliver public services in areas of say health and education) and the Coalition has increased the scope of those new principles. The same could be said of tuition fees. Blair introduced the principle of students/graduates paying, and since then the ‘mainstream’ debate has been predominantly about scale.

The narrative of all of this is something I don’t buy. The narrative seems to be something along the lines of:

Schools are under-performing and standards need raising. On paper it seems that faith schools deliver better exam results than non-faith schools. Look at the league tables – which we [The Government] use to measure standards. Those at the top of the league tables tend to have a stronger faith ethos/base than those that don’t. Therefore we should  have more of those schools that deliver better exam results because that will improve standards.

The above is not a direct quotation from anywhere. It’s what I like to call the ‘mood music’ around the policy. It’s an example of the sort of narrative that someone with little understanding of a policy area (or of politics in general) could follow and generally go along with. It’s only when you start unpicking things – asking for evidence bases (“Is faith a statistically significant variable or are there other explanations?”) or questioning assumptions (“I don’t buy the assumption that improving exam results automatically equates to improving standards”) then things start looking less clear cut.

The two issues that I am interested in are:

The policy inconsistencies of encouraging faith organisations to run schools even though those faith organisations may have very different views to what the government wants to achieve on things like sex education, women’s and gay rights.

Support systems for those who found themselves to be emotionally scarred by an upbringing/education in a faith-based institution.

The first one almost goes without saying. But from a public administration perspective, how do you go about ensuring that such institutions are not behaving in a manner that is storing up problems elsewhere? (For example in its teaching of sex education). Through Puffles I follow and am followed by a number of people from the Republic of Ireland. Every so often there will be a popular hashtag that appears where people flag up both painful and humorous examples of shockingly bad examples of sex education teaching. I’d like to think that the advent of the internet, social media and changing social attitudes have had positive impacts since then.

The second one is one that’s close to my heart. Breaking away from a religion that you have been brought up in was one of the hardest decisions of my life – but I could not continue to live a lie. But it’s not just a religion that you are breaking away from. It’s an entire community – people who (especially if you are a very young adult) you have known for as long as you have lived. Knowing that you and your family are likely to be judged because of it can be incredibly crushing. That all of this took place while I was at university meant that for two-three years at least I did not have to face people in the street to explain myself to others as to why I had made the choice I did.

By expanding the number of faith-based schools, there will inevitably be more people in such a situation. Are such people to be left as they are, or will politicians ensure that there are sufficient safeguards in place for those who don’t want to have anything to do with the religion of the schools they find themselves in (irrespective of the views of their parents)? What about providing support for those who find themselves being ostracised by the only community they may otherwise know and have grown up with? Because if politicians are going to be bringing in policies that promote faith institutions, it is essential that they put in systems (and publicise them) to support those people who choose to reject or turn away from those institutions.

Religious institutions have vested interests in keeping people within their fold. Where can people turn to for independent impartial advice when faced with decisions of this magnitude? For me, it ended up being a counsellor – but by that time the damage that religion had contributed to my mental health problems had already been done.


11 thoughts on “On faith-based schools

  1. So agree with this. But it is depressing how many people buy the narrative you describe without quesitoning it.

    A friend who is Muslim didn’t get why I opposed faith schools until I pointed out that if we both were friends for the rest of our lives and both had kids, I would hope those kids could mix. If he sent his kids to a faith school, I, as an atheist couldn’t.

    I’m not sure I’ve convinced him, but it did at least make him think.

  2. As a Christian, I’m not at all convinced of the need for faith schools in the UK. I grew up in Scotland, where from the age of 5 my friends and I were segregated according to our particular branch of the Christian church. And whilst the local Catholic school were happy to accept children with no religious upbringing, as someone who had been brought up in the Church of Scotland, attending the (better equipped) school closer to my home was out of the question.

    I have different reservations to the faith school issue than you, I think, but I agree with the ones raised here. The fact is, faith schools take effort to get into. You have to really want a place. It stands to reason that parents who are willing to fudge their own beliefs in order to give their children an academic advantage, are going to be more invested in their child’s overall education than someone who is forced, through circumstance or merely through lack of forethought, to take whatever place is offered. This is one reason, I think, for the apparent good results which faith schools seem to return.

    I’m still in the faith I was raised in. And I still don’t see the need for religious instruction to be part of a child’s schooling. My religious “instruction” came from my family, my church community, and there was never any need for me to be “taught” anything about my faith alongside Maths or Englsh. In fact, I think it would have made it very difficult to learn about other faiths and religions, if it was taught alongside someone telling me “But this is the only way to salvation”. Children are impressionable – I work with them weekly in a Christian setting – and it’s a constant worry of mine that I want to share faith with them, whilst not scaring them or setting them up for angst in the future.

    Sorry, this has turned into a bit of an essay. But faith schools in Scotland are currently under review – because many feel they contribute to the festering sectarianism which still blights the Western central belt. I can be a Christian, and still accept that I live in a secular society. Religion not being instructed in schools would not mean children cannot be raised in a faith.

  3. You’re right about the narrative. The thing the government seems content to ignore in assuming that standards are higher in faith schools is that the a huge number of faith (primary) schools are C of E village schools in wealthy areas of the country where the socio-economic mix is such that children are more likely to do well. I’d be interested to see an analysis of the entitlement to free school meals in faith schools as opposed to overall.
    I have a number of reservations about faith schools (don’t get me started!) including staff choice, re-enforcing traditional morality that is exclusive rather than inclusive, lack of reflection of the community, segregation, and indoctrination, but the big problem for me is the teaching that belief in a deity is normal, right and proper. In my experience, faith schools are keen to teach understanding of all religions (as they should) but they fail to explain that it’s ok not to believe in God/god/gods too. There’s little ‘what do you think?’ and lots of ‘here’s what you should think’.
    Both my children go to village faith schools, and indeed I’m a governor of one of them (which brings its own challenges….) The seven year old is an unbothered critical thinker, and so far unaffected by the daily enforced prayers of her teachers and peers. The six year old loves God and sings hymns in the car, and more interestingly, unlike her parents has traditional views on everything, particularly mummies/daddies/marriage (the idea of two women or two men being married does not compute at all). Kids are all different, but if the mind is susceptible, I think faith schooling can sow invasive seeds. It worries me.

  4. I had the misfortune of being educated at a Catholic grammar school, were I learned that under no circumstances would any child of mine ever attend a similar institution. You are so right, breaking away from a religion that you have been brought up in is a very hard decision because you have to self-educate yourself to provide adequate rejoinder to years of indoctrination. Answers to questions you might raise as a child going through the process are answered by teachers with literally centuries of experience to draw upon. I agree with you that religion should not be taught at school but nothing seems to upset people more than a direct challenge to their belief system, so it’s politically a hard sell. It seems that humans need a logical explanation for how we got here and if there’s a reason for our existence. The ready made solutions provided by religion are easier to accept than undergo the self-discipline needed to appreciate science.

    Robin Dunbar wrote, in ‘The Trouble With Science’:

    Belief in supernatural forces, asserting that there are aspects of the world that we cannot understand, is tantamount to a surrender of the very capacities that make us human – namely, our intellectual abilities.

    If the real word genuinely is too complicated for us to understand, then there probably isn’t to much hope for our future. We will never learn how to control the diseases that strike us down, and we will never be able to save the planet from the fate that two dozen centuries of human mismanagement have left it heir to. And if that’s the case, then we might as well go out with a bang rather than a whimper and have a real party on what little remains of the world’s resources. In short, holism (belief in supernatural forces) is a naive recipe for an unmitigated disaster, and we follow it at our peril. Our only real hope for the future lies in the belief that our intellectual abilities are good enough to unravel the complexity of natural processes and allow us to forestall the inevitable fate that awaits us if we don’t. It is a race against time, and we cannot afford the luxury of allowing mystical nonsense to distract us from reality, however comforting that nonsense might be.

    In countless cases, people have believed so passionately in a particular proposition that they have been willing to put to death those with whom they disagree. It is the staggering facility with which we humans seem willing to surrender ourselves to others rather than think for ourselves that is probably the most frightening aspect of our own behaviour.

    1. Hi Joe – liked your detailed reply, and all the contributions in this debate. I didn’t have an overly faith based education myself…but two of my children have been/are being severely damaged by it – pushed into it against my wishes by their mother.
      The reason most parents where I live – in particular the migrant community – are buying it is because of the better discipline they believe exists. They are very anxious to ‘get on’…and avoid any chance of their kids being caught up in what they see as a largely degenerate society.
      However, from my point of view the sooner we get rid of faith schools the better.
      We can if we create faith in ‘the community’!
      We have to deal head on with the social collapse that many of these migrant communities are rightly discerning.

  5. I’m sorry to hear BB had a bad experience of school. Many faith based schools have changed a lot over the years, and I hope the school concerned is one of them.

    Maybe I should tell you about the C of E voluntary aided school I worked in for 3 years. One of the rougher schools in an Essex town. Lots of free school meals (and breakfasts) served. No discrimination on which students it admitted. Very good at helping all its pupils get something out of it, whether they went onto university, college or work. There was no forced prayers or religion shoved down people’s throats, but lots of staff working very hard to help the kids do what they were capable of. When the school was shut down due to falling rolls (not enough kids in the area to support the number of schools), many of the kids were genuinely upset.

    The school wasn’t perfect, no school or institution is. But to get rid of all faith schools undoes the work that many have done to improve the lives of those around them, and seriously risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    1. It had a reputation before the C of E took it over. It certainly wasn’t lovely, and working there was very hard work. The sense of community made the effort worthwhile for everyone. It may well have been like this before, but I don’t know enough to comment.

      I put this up as a counterpoint example. I accept that some faith schools have lots of applicants and have to pick which kids to take. However, lots don’t, and some work really hard in deprived communities to make a difference.

  6. As a specialist support teacher who has visited lots of faith schools I often wonder/despair about the quality of teaching which comes second to a member of staff’s faith. Ie employment not due to ability. I have seen this, it is not anecdoctal.

    I’m afraid I am not convinced that such schools are academically better. Some may be but others cannot be, for the reason given above.

    I am a practising Christian but will never be on the side of this type of segregation/dual standards in teaching.

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