Oh dear. The British Humanist Association (BHA) have been attempting to stir up trouble again. Given that they employ someone full-time to run campaigns against faith schools, it’s not surprising that they’ve managed to find another way to try to cause mischief. This time it’s been over the number of applications made to start free schools by religious organisations.
Up until now the Department of Education (DofE) have only published details of successful free school applications. This was initially challenged by the BHA in June 2011 through the submission of a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the DfE, asking for the name, location, and faith of each group which had applied to open a free school so far. Michael Gove and the DofE initially resisted this request, arguing that revealing the identity of unsuccessful applicants could make them vulnerable to vilification from opponents, putting them off from reapplying or frightening off other groups. The Information Tribunal however overruled the DofE and following a decision not to appeal the outcome, the DofE released the data on Tuesday.
BHA Faith Schools Campaigner, Richy Thompson has given the official reason why the FOI request was made:
‘We’re very pleased that the Government has decided to release this information. We believe that the previous lack of transparency in this area represented a democratic deficit, with the public being unable to know who was applying to set up schools with state funds until after those schools have already been backed by the Government to open. Hopefully that should now change.’
Lack of transparency would seem to be a legitimate concern, but is that the real reason for mounting a challenge? The BHA unsurprisingly has shown plenty of interest in the number and type of religious groups making the applications. So far there have been three ‘waves’ of applications. The first wave did not have the proposed religious faith (in any) of a school recorded. For the other two, of the 517 applications, 132 (25.5%) had come from faith groups. Of these, there 81 were Christian (of various denominations – including 14 Plymouth Brethren and 1 Greek Orthodox), 31 were Muslim, 8 were Jewish, 7 were Sikh and 2 were Hindu.
What is rather curious about the BHA’s response to figures, is that there isn’t really one as such. The BHA tirelessly campaigns to see an end to faith schools and went to the effort to have the Free School application information made public, but having done so, they have pretty much ignored it other than saying they estimate the number of applications with some religious interest to be higher than that stated. Perhaps it’s because the number of applications from religious groups weren’t as numerous as they had expected. At roughly a quarter, it’s just about the same as the proportion of Free Schools that have actually been established by religious groups.
Often complaints will be made by humanists against groups who seek to promote anti-evolution, creationist teaching through the education system. The Plymouth Brethren have such views, but all 14 of their applications have been rejected, so the DofE can’t be criticised for allowing religious fundamentalists to set up their own state funded schools. All in all the information published hasn’t thrown up any shocks and isn’t actually much of a big deal. Or so you would think.
The BHA might have had little to say on this, but that still hasn’t stopped the well-known atheist and philosopher, A.C. Grayling from using this as an opportunity to have a rant at faith schools. His argument is that religious fundamentalists are attempting to open schools in order to indoctrinate the young, making sure their religious beliefs survive. The DofE though has a range of checks and tests for the suitably of applications and so far no creationist Free Schools have been opened. Ignoring this fact Grayling pushes on regardless:
‘There are, therefore, powerful reasons for saying that the government should require all free schools to be secular in the sense of neutral towards faith commitments. Children should not be subjected to indoctrination into religious beliefs, any more than they should be instructed in school to believe that astrology, magic, the occult or voodoo are true.
‘In the past, Richard Dawkins and I have described religious indoctrination of small children as “child abuse”, and if one is being strictly literal in the use of these terms, so indeed it is.
‘Religion is the belief system of our remote ancestors who knew little about the universe, and made up stories to explain it to themselves. It is extraordinary that so many people still live by those stories, so manifestly inadequate as a resource for understanding the world and informing our moral lives. Education should not be narrowing minds into the antiquated moulds of those beliefs, but opening them so that by the bright light of enquiry they can seek and examine evidence for themselves.’
Grayling is his own disgust appears to have missed a basic point. It is impossible not to indoctrinate children as they grow up. As soon as you teach them about any sort of moral values, whether it is that hitting other people is not nice or that the Bible is full of nonsense, you impart your values on to them. It is impossible for children to grow up in a moral vacuum where they are entirely free to make all the decisions without adult influence on what to believe. Grayling is planning to open a free school with teaching based on his own values. He says it is important for children to think for themselves and ask questions. If you go into any school this should be happening anyway, even in a faith school, but encouraging independent thinking is not the same as imparting knowledge and this is always in the control of the teacher. If the whole concept of God is a load of rubbish then Grayling may have a point, but if God is real in any form then surely Grayling’s staunch atheistic approach is actually the one that is potentially more abusive to children.
The BHA and A.C. Grayling may not like it, but faith schools are fully part of the educational establishment and have always been. A faith school is not like a Islamic madrasa where the main focus of education is religious study. It’s much more about ethos and holding to some core religious and moral beliefs that although important to the school, will have a limited impact on most of the curriculum. Certainly some people may come away from such schools feeling they have been indoctrinated, but there are plenty of people who have scars from their education in one form or another.
If faith schools were not seen to be reputable educational establishments you wouldn’t expect so many to be heavily oversubscribed leaving many parents disappointed that they have been unable to get their children into such a school. This is probably the best indicator of the value of faith schools. Huge numbers of parents who don’t have a personal religious faith still would choose to send their children to a faith school. Some of this is to do with academic performance but this can’t be taken to be the only reason. For many, it’s the way the school is run too. If indoctrination was such a worry, this wouldn’t be happening.
It would be much easier if the BHA and high-profile figures such as A.C. Grayling and Richard Dawkins could just be ignored when they attempt to impose their ideologies on society at large. The problem is that they have influence and so when they attack some schools irrespective of the quality of the provision they provide, there does need to be a response. Sometimes the question is asked, if atheists think they have all the right answers, why don’t they set up their own schools? The BHA’s response is that they would rather limit religion in schools than start new ones, which isn’t a very constructive approach.
If faith schools were such a negative issue you’d expect to hear an outcry from dissatisfied parents. Trying to stir up artificial opposition to something that doesn’t appear to be a serious problem, says more about the views of those trying to manufacture change to meet their own goals than any failings in the system and that’s something that mustn’t be forgotten.