Raised again on BBC’s Question Time last month was the ever green subject of Faith Schools. Some years ago I wrote a piece debunking the arguments in favour of them. The issues and arguments haven’t changed, except to say that with Free Schools there are now greater opportunities to set up these schools.
But rarely do the proponents of Faith Schools ask the question “Why do they work?” They simply (and I do mean simply) ascribe the credit to the faith aspect and call for more of it!
On examination it transpires that there is no evidence that religious ethos has any positive influence on educational outcomes. Arguably, the local selective school should be performing better than average catholic schools, so one might make a good case for the religious ethos actually hampering outcomes.
The key is selection. Faith schools can select their intake. In practice this happens in two ways. Using the most available figures (those for Catholic Schools). The 33% of intake who make no religious claim to a place are selected from the local community on the basis of aptitude and ability. This might be a home culture of excellence as with many asian families or it might be on 11-plus results or primary teacher’s recommendations. However it remains that 33% are openly selected on old ‘Grammar school’ terms.
One would expect, under those circumstances, for them to outperform the other local school that cannot select and has to take everyone else.
What of the other 66%? Proponents imply that the 33% selective element is just making up the numbers where local catholic families have moved away, but the numbers don’t back them up:
If a tenth of secondary schools are Catholic schools (as the catholic education service says), and two thirds of the intake claim to be Catholic, that suggests 6.5% of the population (3.9 million) are practicing Catholics. Yet even with the recent arrival of [non-school age] Polish Catholics there are fewer than 1 million weekly attendances at Catholic churches. As with many religions, more identify as Catholic, but without actually bothering with the inconvenient worshipping, confessing and getting up on Sunday morning aspects of being a Catholic.
These additional, apostate ‘lip-service’ catholics are claiming to maintain their adherence, when they patently do not. Could one of their motivations be to get their children a ‘bye’ into a high achieving school that academically selects 33% of its intake?
It means that of the 66% who claim to be catholic, perhaps a quarter (17%) actually attend church. The remainder come from families that might have a parent or grandparent who attends (and so are apostate themselves) or are from families who are simply pretending.
The will to pretend, to masquarade a religious belief, to get into the local (effectively) grammar school is not so strange when the local de facto grammar outperforms the local secondary modern. Who wouldn’t try it on for their children? Anyone prepared to commit to this charade is demonstrating a commitment to their child’s education. So either the children or the parents are displaying a characteristic of likely future achievement.
This means that 83% of the intake are selected on academic grounds or on other indicators of achievement ethos.
It is this selection that has the most marked effect on a child’s education. Not the religious ethos of the school. Again, it is worth comparing the outcomes of openly selective schools with the covertly selective faith schools. Faith schools don’t fare well on the comparison. So the evidence might actually be for the faith element to be counter productive to outcomes.
Whatever arguments people put into this debate, a few facts remain:
- The faithful feel a need to privilege themselves and immerse their offspring in an environment where their faith is ‘normal’. Without this their faiths would be dying even faster than they are.
- No other discrimination of this kind would be tolerated by our society: schools with an open political bias (marxist schools, fascist schools…), schools with an open gender bias (male supremacist schools), schools with an open race bias (asian only schools, white only schools). The list goes on.
- The state should not tolerate the subversion of education establishments to indoctrinate. Only secular schools avoid this indoctrination because…
- …Secular schools don’t expose children to, or endorse, atheism, they just don’t expose them to and privilege a specific superstitious or political worldview and tell kids, or imply to them that they’re true.
- Faith schools are de facto selective schools, that’s why they don’t flourish in Bucks and Kent, where there are proper selective schools.
In fact the whole argument is not one for faith schools, but one for selective schools when ‘God’ is the price you’re prepared to pay to get what amounts to a grammar place.
Well, not the whole argument: Adherents talk about what to tell children with regard to death, and say that they don’t want to expose their child to atheism yet.
Secular schools don’t expose children to atheism, they just don’t expose them to nonsense and fairy tales and tell them that they’re true. They don’t advocate an atheist position any more than they advocate a christian, jewish or satanist one. The only position they do advocate, when they are pressed to, is that they ‘dogmatically’ don’t take a position. In view of this they aren’t ‘exposing your child to atheism’.
As for what to tell children about death: The truth. At worst the truth can be “No one knows, you must make up your own mind.” Which is what I, as an atheist told my children. Certainly there is no need to speak of ‘heaven’ as if it were objective truth.
In this matter the truth can also be a great thing. To realise that this life is what you have, how improbable you are and how wonderful it is. To know that this isn’t a rehearsal, this is the life you have, get on with it, enjoy it and make the best you can. Treat others well, and make sure you’re remembered well, because the only sure immortality is in the love and memory of others.
The pro-faith school stance, already de-bunked as based on a wish not to expose children to adult opinions on faith, has nothing to do with faith and everything to do with selection. I think the system, while perhaps useful in virtual monocultures is a disaster here, as in Northern Ireland potentially generating a degree of sectarianism, segregation, mistrust and ultimately social breakdown. We become a number of separate ‘communities’ occupying the same geographical space but only rarely interacting and then in a tribal atmosphere of mistrust and hostility. But unlike Northern Ireland, with more than just two protagonists.
How? Being sent to a ‘faith school’ results in the said faith permeating your education to a greater or lesser degree. That might be one end of the spectrum – teaching creationism and bible based thinking as ‘science’ – or the other end of the spectrum: a prayer of thanks before meals, an amateur sermon in assembly and a priest on the board of governors (specifically for his religious perspective rather than as a parent).
This not only means that faith intrudes into the lives of non-believers who attend, but also is presented as ‘normal’ and as something that young impressionable minds are exposed to by people their parents tell them to trust and respect.
At a secular school, religion plays no part. The school is not there to promote a non-faith agenda, nothing happens to argue or advocate against any faith or belief, other than the presentation of evidence based teaching. Even then, teachers don’t end explanations with comments like “So christians are wrong!” or “So jews can’t be right!”. The faithful have nothing to fear from a secular school. No opposing opinions will be pushed on their children.
Going to a secular school doesn’t intrude into your observance of your faith it simply removes faith from the sphere of education. You can still pursue your faith at home and expose your child to whatever fairy tales and imaginary friends you please. They can still say a prayer before lunch or an exam, they can even set up school religious societies if they wish, and meet at breaktime or lunchtime.
The only things the religious might possibly find problematic at a secular school are the presentation of objective evidence that specifically denies the possibility of your faith based position (for example Evolution in a science class denying the possibility of creationism). But then that would be because your faith based position is objectively wrong.
Alternatively you might object to the presentation of knowledge about several faiths including your own being delivered on an even par with each other. However I would suggest the only reason you might have concerns about that are because it would expose your faith as no different from any other (when considering its basis and ‘truth’).
But both these objections are based not on your fear of anti-faith propagandising but of your child seeing that the wizard is really just a man behind the curtain.
The secular school is, by definition, neutral to your beliefs, to my beliefs, to everyone’s beliefs. Why is that a problem for the religious? Why do they feel their children need to be brought up in an environment that privileges their faith over other points of view? Why do they fear an education that doesn’t actively promote their faith?
[Originally posted on Fifth Donkey]