August 26, 2010

On faith schools

We’re going to talk about faith schools now, because I said I would. Again, I’m left-wing atheist liberal. You probably know my general opinion. This blog was inspired by the Dawkins documentary Faith School Menace last week and it’ll be of no surprise to you to know that I agree with him entirely. The arguments are straight-forward: it’s not okay to indoctrinate kids basically. I won’t repeat all that hear, instead I’d like to offer a few different angles on this.

Children are not property
There was a bit in that documentary where, frankly, Dawkins didn’t go far enough. One of his interviewees asked him if he thought a parent had the right choose how their child is educated. Dawkins skirted around the question. I wanted him to blow the guy’s argument to bits and say ‘no’.

I had it in my head when I was coming up with this piece that I’d point out that even if you home-school a child, you have to follow the National Curriculum and teach a child certain key things. You can’t teach them 1+1=3, so why should we choose what religious education they get. That seemed obvious. Then I did some research. Turns out you can teach whatever you want. The law just has a woolly rule that you have to provide your child with an education “suitable to their age, ability and aptitude”.

I was genuinely shocked and appalled by this. A parent can opt to home-school a kid, teach him anything they make up, and not have him sit any GCSEs. Yes, if you home-school, you don’t have to do GCSEs. Which basically means parents have the totally legal option to make their kid entirely unemployable for the rest of their lives. That’s abuse. I imagine that most of us would agree that this would be awful, and that any education also didn’t teach a child basic skills like maths, reading and writing should be a crime. But it’s not. That’s plain wrong. Parents shouldn’t have the right to choose their child’s education. Children are not the property of their parents. Parents will inevitably have a huge influence on their children in everything from religion through to social values and all sorts. Education, school… that should be the one area where we’re on an even playing field. Sure, if you can afford it get better teachers at a private school, or if you must send them to a faith school where they associate with children of the same faith and the non-educational parts of school (assembly, etc) are in-line with your religion. But the syllabus should be the same for everyone. You wouldn’t want schools to be able to choose to teach that 1+1=3 in Maths, so don’t let them choose what to teach in Religious Education either. And if we can’t reach a compromise on the syllabus for RE, then drop it entirely. Let parents deal with that and replace it with Philosophy. It’s not that important anyway.

If you want to raise a child in a given religion there’s nothing that can be done to stop you. But by ensuring that all our children are educated with the same material to the same level, we can hopefully give them enough knowledge to decide for themselves if they really believe in that religion when they’re older. Removing that level playing field of basic education should be a crime.

Selection is either right or wrong, you can’t have it both ways

I hate hypocrisy. I’m a hypocrite myself too, but that’s okay because… Anyway. I went to a single-sex grammar school. If you don’t know what a grammar school is, it’s a selective secondary school with an entrance exam, but once you get it, it’s totally free. Like a private school that only has scholarships. There’s not many of them left these days, as Labour were hugely against them and even the Tories don’t want to bring them back.

Now I mostly benefitted from that experience. I think grammar schools are good. They’re not perfect: it certainly left me socially stunted when it came to liaising with the opposite sex, and it took years to get past that. Some would say I still haven’t, but it turns out the combination of being in your mid-twenties, taking up stand-up comedy and blurring the boundaries between yourself and your on-stage character means that ‘creepy’ somehow metamorphasises in to ‘quirky’. Someone called me ‘a bit of a character’ the other week. Point being, grammar schools have their ups and downs, but if you’re going to argue that we shouldn’t have them as selection is wrong, and goes against the principle of a common education for all, then how can you possibly argue that faith school are okay?

A school’s primary function is to educate. Yes, it serves secondary functions in a child’s general development, but it’s main purpose is as a learning institution. Grammar schools select pupils based on their aptitude for learning. It chooses those that learn quicker to better cater for their educational needs. There is an unfair element to that but it makes logical sense. Schools educate, so we select kids based on their ability to be educated.

The Labour government would have us think that that is wrong. While at the same time, encouraging selection based on the religion of the child’s parents. There’s a vague argument for that somewhere. In assembly and such religion comes in to play and religion is a small part of a child’s school life. But it’s tiny compared to the actual process of learning. Yet selecting based on a preference for that tiny little bit of school life is okay. Selecting on the basis of the whole rest of it is somehow wrong.

Again, I can see the argument against grammar schools. I can see the argument for faith schools. I can’t possibly see how you can hold both at the same time. Either it’s okay for schools to select their pupils (on any metric other than geographic location), in which case aptitude for learning is surely the first thing you’d go for, or education should be equal for all and selection is always wrong, in which case there’s no justification for faith schools at all.

Faith schools are racist

Controversial one last then. There are now a few Muslim faith schools dotted around the place. There’s been a bit of consternation about it but mostly they’ve gone ahead with little opposition. The reason for this is that no Muslim faith school has yet topped the local school league tables. This will happen eventually, and when it does the Daily Mail will go insane. “How dare they?” they will ask, “How dare they stop our white Christian kids attending the best school in the area!”

See, the thing about Catholic, CofE and other Christian denominational faith schools is that, to white person, they’re all much of a muchness. I don’t like the system, but I’m no fool. If I’m living in an area where a faith school is the place my child will get the best all-round education, then I’ll play the system. The Dawkins documentary had an interesting fact: 30% of schools are faith schools, 3% of people regularly go to Church. Lots of people are playing the system. As a white, middle-class male, I can do that. It doesn’t matter the denomination, any Christian school and I can just start turning up at the local Church a few years before. My general engagement with religious matters, the fact that I’ve studied the Bible so I can be confident in my atheism, that all actually means that I can probably fake it better than the family that self-identify as Christian but only go to church twice a year and don’t really think about it too much. Being able to engage the priest in a complex religious discussion is more likely to get you noticed and your kid a recommendation than someone that just shows their face.

But like I say, I can do that, because I’m white. And because I’m an atheist that doesn’t have to worry about making my god angry by switching religion. Your average Muslim family can’t do that. Partly because religion is often so tightly ingrained in their culture that they can’t just switch, partly because they don’t want to, and partly because even if they did, they’d probably be regarded with suspicion and face accusations of converting just to get their kids in to the good CofE school. And those accusations would probably come from the white parents doing the exact same thing.

The white non-practicing-christian middle-class mostly ignore this, as there’s no shoe on the other foot. No Muslim faith school is the best school in the area yet. So they don’t have to worry. When that does happen, it’ll raise some interesting questions. In theory religion is something you choose, in practice it’s often something you’re born in to.


- 3 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. John

    I thought I’d pick out a few things you said to reply to though I’m never really sure whether people who write here welcome replies or not. Children aren’t the property of parents nor are they the property of the state, all we, as adults, can do is what we believe to be best for them. As far as home-schooling is concerned I can’t understand why any parent would think that was the best option for their child as it would mean they would have such an overwhelming amount of influence on them.

    I think my children who went to comprehensive schools got a better education than I did at grammar school. We didn’t have debating societies or take part in model united nations.

    As far as religion is concerned, I just don’t get it.

    26 Aug 2010, 07:44

  2. I missed the Dawkins documentary, but I’m intrigued to know – do you/he make distinctions between “faith schools” and “schools connected to a church”? I ask because, as I hope Dawkins pointed out, pretty much all schools in the country were, certainly in the 19th century, church schools, in that it was the church that took responsibility for organising an education system, and specific churches sponsored individual schools. Many of the CofE and RC schools out there (and I’m going purely on my own personal experience here, I don’t know about the whole country) follow in this tradition – they have longstanding connections to a church, but they still teach “proper” science (evolution etc.), follow the national curriculum, allow children of other faiths in and don’t require attendance at church, and teachers are not recruited on the basis of religious belief – essentially, apart from in name and in the retention of Christian elements in assemblies etc. (optional), little different to “secular” schools.

    I very much agree with the problems engendered by “faith schools” teaching specific ideologies, but I feel it’s only responsible – and fair – to recognise that there’s a big difference between schools that retain an historical connection to the church/education system and schools that actually teach on the basis of faith.

    26 Aug 2010, 10:12

  3. John – comments are always welcome as far as I’m concerned, it’s good to hear other points of view and opinions.

    Peter – good point, lots of schools have a religious element outside of lessons (ie. we always sung christian hymns in assembly), the two big differences are that faith schools are allowed to select their students on the basis of their parent’s faith, and they’re allowed to teach their own syllabus for RE and not follow the National Curriculum.

    The show is still on 4oD if you want to see it: http://www.channel4.com/programmes/faith-school-menace/4od

    26 Aug 2010, 10:23


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