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.