Faith schools: Tony Blair’s pet love, but ultimately an objectionable use of government money. Before considering the practical arguments against such schools, allow me to first raise two important points of principle:
Firstly, the principle of the proper relationship between church (or more generally, religion) and state. The separation of church and state, although still formally unrealised in the United Kingdom, is one of the great features of a liberal, pluralist democracy. It recognises that religious belief is and ought to be a private matter; something to be respected but not supported or favoured by the state. Indeed, the proper role of the state is to create the circumstances in which responsible and well-rounded citizens can flourish. This means educating our young people without any specific religious bias.
Secondly, there is the principle of the state’s responsibility to create a tolerant and cohesive society. Faith schools, which amount to a form of religious apartheid, undermine this principle. Children grow up in separated communities and have little interaction with the beliefs and customs of other people. This separation means that when they enter the wider world they are ill-prepared to cope with the demands of living in a multi-cultural society. Cohesion and tolerance are put at risk.
And then there are the practical arguments against faith schools. The Coalition Government claims to support such schools on the grounds that they deliver better academic results, more choice for parents and a moral ethos that develops responsible and tolerant future citizens. Let’s consider each of these claims in turn.
On the point of results, it may be true that faith schools are generally more academically successful than community schools but this isn’t necessarily a sign that they provide a better quality education. Such success could instead be the result of the de facto selective admissions procedures that these schools use: if a child has parents who are willing to go to church to get their son or daughter into a faith school then it’s likely that this child will be coming from a supportive home that values education. This kind of upbringing is conducive to academic success.
On the point of choice, the extent to which faith schools broaden a parent’s options is also questionable. If a Muslim family finds itself in a neighbourhood that is going to set up a new Christian faith school then has its range of choices increased? On the contrary, faith schools appear to reduce choice, diverting government funds away from schools that would be equally welcoming to people of all beliefs.
And then there’s the point of moral ethos. Once again, faith schools don’t necessarily deliver the goods. Whilst principles of love, responsibility and respect are at the heart of most religions and will therefore be encouraged in faith schools, these are values that are common to all of humanity and could equally form the ethos of a community school. Moreover, a community school isn’t likely to give moral teachings that some might deem socially undesirable, such as conservative views on gender relations or homosexuality that are associated with certain faiths.
So both in principle and in practice there is much to object to concerning faith schools. If we want a tolerant and cohesive society, free from religious apartheid and where the proper boundaries between religion and state are respected, then government funding for these schools must be opposed.
The Durham Union Society will be debating the motion ‘This House Would Not Pay for Faith Schools’ on Friday 24th December at 8:30pm in the Debating Chamber on Palace Green. Speaking for the proposition will be Aaron Porter, a former NUS President, and Mike Lake, founder of the Derbyshire Secularists. Speaking for the opposition will be Baroness Sherlock, a Labour peer, and Father Henry Wansborough, Cathedral Prior of Durham. The debate is free for all members.