Head to head
Last month, faith schools got the green light from the government to expand. But are religious schools a good thing? No, says Jay Harman, education campaigns manager at Humanists UK, who believes they have no place in our increasingly secular society. Paul Stubbings, headmaster at The Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School in Kensington, London, disagrees, arguing that they enrich diversity.
Jay Harman is education campaigns manager at Humanists UK, a national charity working on behalf of non-religious people to campaign for a secular state.
We wouldn’t accept the idea of people being refused a place in hospital or getting onto a bus based on their religion (or lack of it), so there is no reason why we should accept it in schools.
In education, this kind of discrimination has far reaching consequences, including socioeconomically. It is well known, for example, that faith schools usually take a less than representative sample of poorer children and more than their fair share of children from wealthier backgrounds. ‘Selection, even on religious grounds, is likely to attract well-behaved children from stable backgrounds,’ as a spokesperson for Ofsted has previously pointed out. Religious schools are often said to perform better because of their religious ethos, but the reality is that the improved performance is entirely down to this well-documented back-door entry system favouring more affluent families – prayers for places, on your knees to pay the fees, pew jumping etc.
Certain faith schools, especially Catholic ones, often dismiss this by comparing their statistics of children on free school meals to the national average, but Catholic schools are usually based in urban areas where there are by nature more deprived families. Compare the individual school against its own local area and you’ll see a very different picture.
Faith schools are also less likely to be ethnically integrated. Again, Catholic schools in particular may be ethnically diverse insofar as the religion itself is ethnically diverse – so, for example, you might get plenty of West Indian children in Catholic schools. But when you look at other ethnic origins such as Asian minorities, they are overwhelmingly excluded. In fact, Catholic schools perform worse than any other type of school when it comes to including children of Asian origin.
Then there’s the issue of religious segregation. If we continue to silo children by religion, or by their parents’ religion, how will they ever have the skills to live in a modern diverse society? Faith schools divide and define children by beliefs they are too young to hold confidently for themselves. We only have to look at Northern Ireland, which is a cautionary tale that the rest of the UK still doesn’t seem to have woken up to. There is no problem with teachers and school leaders being motivated by their religion to provide a great education, but unfortunately these schools’ mission statements are consistently clear in stating that part of the rationale is to evangelise and bring people to faith – and we have to be wary of that.
Public services should be secular, inclusive and appropriate for everyone, not least because all tax payers’ money goes to them. Yet faith schools have legal exemptions that allow them to teach a skewed religious and narrow curriculum that can be doctrinaire and which doesn’t afford children freedom of belief. They can influence the curriculum in other ways, too – for instance, around sex and relationships education. Some teach only abstinence, many teach inaccuracies around abortion and they are often not LGBT inclusive.
One of the great myths about faith schools is that they promote parental choice. But parents choose schools based on facilities, academics and friends who have gone there, with less than 10 per cent of parents saying they consider religion as a factor at all. So when we hear there is demand for faith schools, the reality is there is a demand for good schools which may or may not be faith-based. Just six per cent of the population attends church each week, and when you take away the people only going to get their kids into school, it becomes even lower.
The UK is one of only four countries that identifies with the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) to allow religious discrimination in state school admissions – the others being Ireland, Estonia and Israel. So while we take it for granted that we have these faith schools and that they should be allowed to discriminate, we are actually very unusual on the world stage.
Paul Stubbings is headmaster at The Cardinal Vaughan Memorial Roman Catholic School, a state school for 11-18 year-old boys in Kensington, London
Most of my arguments in favour of religious schools revolve around diversity. If we accept, as most of us do, that diversity is good and enriching, it strikes me as counterintuitive that we should want to make our education system less diverse by removing religious schools.
As for the suggestion that religious schools (which I don’t call faith schools because in most people’s minds, the term equates with superstitious mumbo-jumbo – and in any case, every school, even the most secular, is built on some sort of faith system) are socially exclusive, I believe this is a lazy mischaracterisation. That’s certainly the case when it comes to Catholic schools. The numbers simply don’t stack up. For example, 30 per cent of pupils nationally in Catholic schools come from an ethnic minority background – a higher percentage than in English state schools as a whole. And with socioeconomic disadvantage, 18 per cent of pupils who go to Catholic secondaries come from the lowest 20 per cent earners in the country, whereas nationally it’s 14 per cent.
Still on the topic of diversity, if we are living in a diverse culture with diverse religions, then surely it’s perfectly legitimate for a religious group to set up a school and provide an education for its community? And that community, when it comes to the Catholic church, is truly global – so for example at this school, there are children ranging from Polish immigrants to Nigerian Catholics. And what a lot of people don’t realise is that about a third of all pupils at all Catholic schools are of other faiths or none. In fact, Catholic schools educate over a quarter of a million of non-Catholics, with - for instance - plenty of Muslim families choosing to send their families to Catholic schools. The assertion, then, that we are stuffed with white Catholic children with sharp elbows to keep the poor kids out is just not true.
In fact, historically, the Catholic church was a church of migrants and the disadvantaged and so when the majority of Catholic schools were built in the second half of the 19th century, most of them were specifically set up for these groups. That’s why Catholic schools are more likely to be found in urban areas, where the church still focuses helping the disadvantaged. Yet in spite of Catholic schools predating the state school system, and still constituting 10 per cent of the state education sector, we are often considered the cuckoos in the nest, which to me is both unfortunate and extraordinary.
Our teachers are also a diverse group, with half of them in this school being Catholic. That’s because we value and respect all staff members, regardless of backgrounds or beliefs. It’s only for certain leadership positions that there is a requirement to be a practising Catholic in order to maintain the Catholic ethos of the school.
Another myth about religious schools is that we get to teach whatever we want. All Catholic schools teach the national curriculum, including evolution and reproduction in science, and we teach about other religions in addition to our own. And Catholic schools teach relationship and sex education in an age-appropriate way. In fact, to my knowledge, the Catholic sector is the only education provider to have a comprehensive model RSE curriculum for ages 3 to 19.
My school gets the best results for boys in comprehensives in the country. Year after year, we top the league tables. I would argue we do this because of – not in spite of - the fact that we are culturally diverse, with a quarter of our pupils in receipt of free school meals and 40 per cent speaking a language other than English at home. In short, we are a diverse community, part of a diverse sector, in a diverse city, providing an excellent and diverse education.
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