I’m a vicar and the governor of a church school. And I know that faith schools are wrong.

“Rather than pandering to the views of the vociferous few from within each faith community, the government should put the needs of the wider community first and set in motion plans that will see the removal of all faith schools, bringing them back under common, secular control.”  

 It may sound like a ‘turkey voting for Christmas’ when I write as the Vicar of 6 Church of England parishes, and as the ex-officio governor of 3 church primary schools, to say that I believe that the government is approaching the issue of faith schools from the wrong end.

This government should be showing leadership rather than playing to the perceived wishes of a possibly influential lobby: that is the communities of faith in the UK.  In the interest of providing a broad, inclusive curriculum delivered to all pupils and in order to further develop integration (and not fragmentation) in a multi-cultural society ALL faith schools should be run by government (be it local or national).

“There is so little that unifies us as citizens of a common nation that fragmenting the education system still further does not seem that wise to me.”

Faith schools are an anachronistic hangover from the days when the provision of elementary education was largely dependent upon the initiatives from, initially, the Church of England (as the Established Church) in the days before state funded education. The 1944 Education Act cemented the role of faith schools (Anglican, Catholic and Jewish) principally because of the economic cost of ‘buying’ back into state ownership the buildings and land on which faith schools stood.

With the arrival of significant numbers from other faith groups, it was felt, in the interest of equity, that these groups too could open there own faith schools. This principal was also applied to other Christian groups.

And so of the 20,000 (approx.) schools in England almost one third are faith schools, be they Church of England, Methodist,  CofE/Methodist, CofE/Methodist/United Reform Church/Baptist, CofE/Free Church, Roman Catholic, CofE/RC, Greek Orthodox, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Quaker, Seventh Day Adventist, Sikh, or Reformed Church.

“I would argue that to live, work, and grow up amongst a wide variety of traditions will build closer ties between different communities, build bonds and break down barriers of misunderstanding that can lead to pigeon holing, prejudice, and bigotry.”

There is so little that unifies us as citizens of a common nation that fragmenting the education system still further does not seem that wise to me. How can young people learn to experience the richness of different traditions (including Humanism) if they do not grow up together? The reality of Faith Schools is that it is extremely unlikely that religious families, of whatever tradition, would choose for their child a school of an alternative Faith tradition; and if secular families are unwilling to choose Anglican Schools for their child what chance is there that they would be happy with one of the other Faith Schools? The upshot is that Faith Schools, particularly in towns and cities, will become more and more SINGLE Faith Schools. The result then becomes more and more narrowing, rather than broadening, of the educational experience.

I would argue that to live, work, and grow up amongst a wide variety of traditions will build closer ties between different communities, build bonds and break down barriers of misunderstanding that can lead to pigeon holing, prejudice, and bigotry. (Just a brief look at the educational experience of Northern Ireland in the last century illustrates the dangers that can result from exclusive single faith schools.)  The removal of this faith impediment in education can only strengthen the common bonds that unite us as citizens of the United Kingdom and help reinforce those values that that lie at the heart of our shared culture.

In promoting the increase in the number of Faith School politicians argue that such schools tend to produce better results. A major factor for this is that the selection processes for entry into those Faith Schools rated as good or outstanding, particularly in cities, seem to have been purpose built to favour ambitious middle class parents. There are Faith Schools in this country occupying sites in deprived neighbourhoods where the majority of the pupils come in from outside, attracted by the ‘quality’ of education, while those who live nearest are excluded from their local school and have to travel to schools further afield  because their parents are not so adept at ‘playing’ the application process. Should a government apparently committed to improving opportunities for all really be increasing opportunities to discriminate against the most disadvantaged in our society?

“We need schools where children of all faiths and none can live and learn alongside one another in an atmosphere of tolerance, love and respect.”

For me, Christianity is a religion that has grown out of a tradition of speaking ‘Truth to Power’; that is confronting those in power with the implications of their actions regardless of cost. Jesus was the ultimate example of this and paid for his outspokenness with his life. Throughout its history the Church has been potent in bringing about change (e.g. in the last 200 years: slavery (although it is important to note that in 1807 all the Bishops in the House of Lords voted in favour of the slave trade), civil rights, female emancipation, opposition to homophobia when, initially, the voices of a few spoke out against the majority closely allied to custom and the institutions of power and oppression. Should a religion proclaiming that true freedom is found in the weakness of the child born in the stable who grew up to be crucified on the cross continue to side with the exercise of power and the reward of privilege as represented in our Faith Schools?

If the Church is to imitate Jesus and many great men and women of our tradition it must be willing to step back from its seat at the tables of power, be it Faith Schools or the right to automatic membership of the House of Lords, and call for justice and equity across the whole of society, including in the education system, from outside. The efficacy of its witness has to be based on its truth and authenticity and not on an unhealthy historical association with power. We need schools where children of all faiths and none can live and learn alongside one another in an atmosphere of tolerance, love and respect. These are the core values of all religions and ethical systems as well as being the values that our society should be doing all in its power to instil in its young people. Unity of opportunity and not fragmentation has to be the way forward.

Rather than pandering to the views of the vociferous few from within each faith community, the government should put the needs of the wider community first and set in motion plans that will see the removal of all faith schools, bringing them back under common, secular control.

Anonymous

How religious selection in schools brings misery to parents and children

‘my child should not be penalised and put at the bottom of a long, long list just because his parents don’t have a particular belief. This just seems all so, so wrong’

The Fair Admissions Campaign aims to end religious selection in schools
The FAC aims to end religious selection in schools

Every year, hundreds of thousands parents find themselves unable to get their children into their local schools due to the religiously-selective admissions criteria that many of them employ. On its own, this is little more than state-funded religious discrimination, but it also has the corollary effect of unfairly limiting the choice of vast swathes of the population who are either of the ‘wrong’ religion, or who aren’t religious at all. Of course, this can be more of a problem in some areas than it is in others.

Take, for example, the case of one mother from Farnham in Surrey, who got in touch with the Fair Admissions Campaign, a group set up to bring an end to religious selection:

‘Of the 10 schools closest to us, only 2 do not require you to attend Church or follow the Christian faith. My daughter was rejected by the 4 schools we listed and instead placed in the worst school in our area. It is a failing school that has been placed in special measures and we have heard of numerous accounts of parents removing their children due to bullying. We chose to live here because of the schools and to be close to one set of parents. At the time we made that decision, neither of us were aware of the admissions policies.’

She went on to say that ‘to judge a FOUR YEAR OLD on her religious beliefs is ridiculous.’ 

Regrettably, limits to parental choice of this kind are extremely common. In Kensington and Chelsea for instance, around 60% of places are subject to religious criteria:

‘My wife and I have been going through the process of applying for a primary school place for our son.  We live in Kensington and Chelsea.  Forced to take a close look at how the system worked, we were appalled to see the distorting effect that faith schools had on our choice.  We’re not fans of the concept in general but were particularly aggrieved when it became clear that, because all even half-decent schools in K&C are oversubscribed, we had less choice of taxpayer-funded schools than someone whose child was a Catholic, has been baptised, etc.  Any of those people can of course apply to a non-faith school and get an equal chance of a place to us but the converse is not true.’

Unsurprisingly, parents of the wrong or no faith are disproportionately disadvantaged by such criteria. The consequences of this are well-documented, as is attested to by this mother:

‘Like many parents, my nearest three schools are faith schools which are able to prioritise church-going children over non-church-going ones (two Christian, one Catholic). They are always heavily oversubscribed…Speaking to other parents, I’ve confirmed what I thought were simply my negative suspicions – parents attending church purely to get a place at these schools. They begrudge their lost Sundays, but they do it.’

Unwilling to do the same, she was forced to apply for a place at a  school with no religious character further away from home and, in her own words, ‘cross my fingers, expecting to spend 2012/3 in appeals’.

As it currently stands therefore, the system rewards parents who lie about their religion in order to get their children into school, with a recent poll suggesting that as many as 36% of parents have done this or would be willing to. Conversely, the system penalises and drastically limits the choice of parents who rightly feel uncomfortable with this. As this particular mother put it, ‘my child should not be penalised and put at the bottom of a long, long list just because his parents don’t have a particular belief. This just seems all so, so wrong’.

A version of this blog post first appeared on the Fair Admissions Campaign website in July 2015. 

Even moderate Church schools can do real harm

“Being from a Muslim family, Ali was not allowed to attend assemblies…. I have a very clear memory of seeing him peering through the glass into the hall, trying to see if assembly was over. Could there be any clearer image to reinforce my notion that Ali was not fully ‘one of us’?”

I did my first three years of secondary school in a private fundamentalist school that used the Accelerated Christian Education curriculum. It was not a pleasant experience. As a result, I hardly ever talk about the school I went to before that, a Church of England primary. I remember being very happy there and I’ve always thought of it as an excellent school, especially in light of what was to follow. Reflecting on it now, though, there are some things that bother me.

I never thought of the school as Christian at the time. I think I’d been there a year or more before I even realised it was a faith school. My family believed that to be a real Christian you must be Born Again. Since the Christianity propagated at this primary was not of the Born Again variety, as far as I was concerned it didn’t count. Yes, we were encouraged to believe in God and go to church, but everyone did that, didn’t they? “Even the devil believes in God”, my dad said.

There was one boy from a Muslim family in my year, Ali. I’m exceptionally glad he was there now. He was the only Muslim I’d ever met (and one of the handful people I knew who weren’t white). He was the lone face I could put to Islam. Without him, Muslims would have been entirely the inhuman Other in my mind. Ali and I were not close friends, but we got on fine.

Well, we got on fine when we didn’t talk about religion. Unfortunately one lunch break we did just that, which ended with me telling him he was going to hell, and Ali in tears. I was kept in at lunchtime the next day while two teachers hauled me over the coals for what I’d said. I was genuinely perplexed, since as far as I was concerned I’d only told Ali the truth.

To be clear, I do not blame my intolerance on the school. I grew up with a poisonous religious ideology that I learned mainly at home and church. I don’t know what the local vicar had to say about hell, but I imagine his response would have involved tea and a biscuit and telling me not to worry. But there was nothing about about the school’s faith status that made reconciliation with Ali easier. The school’s stance just confirmed for me that Christianity was supreme (I just did Christianity better than everyone else). Had the school taken seriously the beliefs of people with other faiths and none, it could have been a much-needed brake on my fanaticism.

Being a faith school, we had religious assemblies, and being from a Muslim family, Ali was not allowed to attend them. He sat in a room adjoining the hall during these gatherings. I have a very clear memory of seeing him peering through the glass into the hall, trying to see if assembly was over. Could there be any clearer image to reinforce my notion that Ali was not fully ‘one of us’?

Despite it being a Christian school, I was pretty sure that some of our teachers really didn’t believe, and that conviction has not dimmed with time. We ended the school day with prayer, and some of these prayers were less than convincing. I remember a teacher taking the opportunity one November to ask God to help us remember that Christmas was still quite a long time away, so we shouldn’t start getting excited yet.

One afternoon the teacher told us we were about to pray. I waited silently for the prayer to begin. “When you’re all ready, we’ll begin”, prompted the teacher, and I wondered which straggler was holding up proceedings. “We’re waiting, Jonny,” she snapped. What? Me? It took me a second to work out what was wrong: I had my eyes open. My family didn’t really believe in closing our eyes to pray. We did sometimes, when it felt right, but we saw Jesus as more of a friend, and I didn’t close my eyes to talk to my friends. I dutifully closed my eyes, indignant at the implication I was ‘doing prayer wrong’ coming from a teacher who, as far as I was concerned, wasn’t even a proper Christian.

What aspect of this farce seemed like a good idea to the architects of my education? The teachers compromising their integrity by pretending to espouse a religion they did not believe? Using this charade to filter children towards a religion they did not choose? Shaming a child whose religious observance was not ‘correct’?

I maintain that my primary was an excellent school. But the things that were excellent about it were not distinctively Christian, and the things that were distinctively Christian were not excellent.

Jonny Scaramanga blogs at Leaving Fundamentalism.