Can anyone seriously think that faith schools are a form of child abuse?

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.

Categories: Atheism, Education, Faith in society

Tags: , , , , , , ,

23 replies

  1. The usual stuff and nonsense, eh? As you say, if faith schools were disapproved of then they would be empty; they wouldn’t attract good teachers, and their results would be poor. None of those things has happened. If community groups didn’t want to set up faith-based free schools, they wouldn’t be applying to do so. The application system is set up to reject applications that wouldn’t work, and it seems to be doing that job pretty well. In the meantime, we’re seeing suppression of religious freedom in the name of equality of choice. Again.

    • Rubbish, Peter. Just because a large number of people approve, doesn’t make them right. A large number of people did not oppose the nazis. Indoctrination of children into your religious voodoo doesn’t infer they will get bad results. My only comment on the teachers is that my non-beleiving wife works in a faith school. It’s a job. I think faith schools are divisive and am an aggressive secularist. My wife doesn’t have religion on her radar scree – its an irrelevence in her life, but, unlike me, she doesn’t actively campaign against them.

  2. Thanks for this. Good piece (as usual).

    I’m always interested in what is said about faith schools, given that I attended one for nearly 10 years. Much of what the campaigns office of the BHA is unrecognisable from my experience. First and foremost, a faith school is a place of education. We learnt maths, English, science, history, geography, French, IT and anything else you would expect from an educational establishment which had to comply with the national curriculum.

    This seems to be a point lost amidst scaremongering about creationism. As it is not on the syllabus it can’t be taught in the school. My headmaster was a creationist and we all knew it, but we knew it couldn’t be taught in biology lessons. The closest he could come was to encourage us to be sceptical thinkers. Evaluate everything, examine the evidence. This was an ethos that ran across the school – which is possibly why a disproportionately high number of leavers went on to study the sciences at sixth form college and university.

    It would be quite false to suppose that it was a centre of indoctrination. Though some students freely chose to become christians, many also rejected christianity. Though at least they left with a fair idea of what it was they were rejecting.

  3. Indoctrination seems such an odd phrase to use. Appropriate for the education system in North Korea perhaps but hardly appropriate to one hour a week R.E in your local high school. Is there any school in the country that teaches creationism in science ? if there is i have never heard of it. The B.H.A exaggerate alarmingly but all groups that are against rather than for something tend to over play the ills of their opponents.

  4. I attended a faith school, in the sense that it was a school with a Christian foundation and had a strong Christian ethos. One of the benefits for me was that this school encouraged its students to question, think for ourselves, explore new ideas and not simply accept what was presented. So, for me the idea that faith schools discourage this makes no sense.

  5. Unfortunately faith based education has a bad name with humanists because of fairly recent conflicts. However, if you look at the history of many communities around the Mediterranean, in the Middle East and in Asia there was a great tradition of religions existing courteously and peacefully alongside one another precisely because of good education which allowed respect for different faiths and philosophies. You have only to look at education systems in atheistic societies (Albania, parts of eastern Europe, parts of the former USSR etc) to see that the total exclusion of religion from the curriculum does not necessarily lead to the ability of peoples to exist harmoniously alongside one another.

  6. Excellent piece as always which gets to the heart of the bias against organised religion shown by secularists and atheists, especially toward its institutions. Below is the link to a piece I wrote for called “In Defence of Faith Schools” last year which is my take on why faiths schools are and should remain an important part of the educational infrastructure.

  7. As an opponent to Faith schools I am encouraged by the above posts that describe their own educations as “encouraging questioning” and free-thought.

    These are the fears that humanists (and I include myself ) have in faith schools. Its not just the caricature of a worry of american style creationism. It’s the thought process itself, to be able to think freely without fear or superstition that I want to see protected.

    I am genuinely delighted that the authors of these posts were encouraged to question what they were taught and I hope that was extended across the syllabus, to include RE too.

    I’m not sure how such liberalism can be enshrined in law and I would still feel more comfortable with ‘proper’ subject matter being taught in schools and religious studies being taught in home / church / mosque / temple / whatever. This would ensure that the state fulfills its brief to educate our children, whilst still keeping them safe from those who may wish them harm, even if that harm was in the belief of doing good.

  8. Secularism is about *securing* religious freedom, not attacking it. It means not tolerating a situation where parents may have to send their children to a school which explicitly promotes a different religion from their own.

    This article misses the key point: faith schools discriminate against parents of *every other faith*. If a school is secular, *all* parents can send their children there, confident that the school’s teachings will not conflict with their own world view.

    And if faith schools are not for indoctrination, what are they for? Granted, most religious schools do not *force* faith upon their students but, as the article points out, it is impossible not to indoctrinate children to some value or other. Why would a faith school exist if not to impress the values of that faith upon its wards?

    • “It means not tolerating a situation where parents may have to send their children to a school which explicitly promotes a different religion from their own.”
      I taught for some years in a C of E school in Peterborough: it was noticeable that the local imams overwhelmingly sent their children to that school, rather than the equally good secular alternatives – because it was a place where God, and faith, were taken seriously.
      The school did not attempt to indoctrinate pupils into becoming Christians. It did aim to ensure that they had an experience of being profoundly valued for their own sake; and that they had a proper understanding of Christianity, and other faiths, so that they could make up their own minds on an informed basis.

  9. As an Atheist I don’t object to faith schools as such. Indeed my son attended a Catholic sixth form college and took Religious Studies to A level. I am sure that all faiths and none were better educated for having the widest debate and exchange of views. What I do object to is faith schools being able to select which children they want to take, based on the actions of their parents. I am not hypocritical enough to use the church. I didn’t get married in one and I would not park myself on a pew every week to get my Vicars blessing for my school admission. As a result, with two sons, I had no parental choice at all being barred from the local C of E school, the local Catholic school and the Girls High.
    One persons religious choice is another persons religious discrimination is it not?

    • A good point. But it does raise the question: if a faith school isn’t able to select either its pupils or its teachers on the basis of faith, to what extent can it claim to be a faith school? Most places in a church school should be open to any pupil in the catchment area – but if it is to be in any sense a Christian school, it does need to have a certain percentage of Christians in it.

  10. ‘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.’ – Here, the nail is hit on its head.

    This isn’t a coin flip ‘if’. There IS no evidence that god exists. Grayling’s default position of scepticism must be the intellectually honest one.

    That some people may come away feeling indoctrinated, but that’s somehow OK because many people carry ‘scars’ from their education, is a wholly asinine point.

    Children should have the most intellectual, highest personal development experience possible. The historiography of religion will play a part in that, encouraging the kids into religion should not.

  11. I just have this nagging doubt about faith schools.

    Faith ……as I understand it is knowledge without the necessity for evidence.
    Schools…to me are all about the gaining of knowledge through empirical evidence.

    Surely ‘faith schools’ in this case are hardly inimicable to a school education?

    In my experience the stronger a friend holds his faith , the less he/she is able to accept anything other than literal bible truths over evidence in all matters, not just creationism.

    Like Ed I welcome the experiences others have gained from faith schools but wonder why, if they are no different to any other schools, how they are desirable and ‘better’?

  12. What bothers me about faith schools, is that they are a publicly funded institution that discriminates based on religious belief. So in effect, I’m helping to pay for something that my children are excluded from. In my mind that is so very, very, wrong. I don’t have a problem with people wanting to believe in whatever they want, as long as it isn’t at the expense (not just financial expense) of others. The problem is, is that most organised religions seem to want to make their beliefs, everyone else’s problem…

  13. A C Grayling’s point is being missed. He is advocating that schools such teach facts about reality, not that made-up realities are fact.

    You assume that all word-views are equal; that critical thinking and facts based on evidence are in the same category as theology, metaphysics and ancient texts. However, we all know this is not the case. Only a purveyor of sophistry would claim that independent thought is of equal value to being told that Christ’s resurrection was an actual event.

    Even if the schools are not teaching pseudoscience such as creationism, teaching one particular religion over others does not protect the religious freedoms of many parents and their children.

    Keep it in church.

  14. Those arguing that “faith schools are wrong because God doesn’t exist”, well, in some sense I agree with you, but that argument is never going to get very far. If we want to make any serious headway on the faith schools debate, we can’t include the origins of reality as a subproblem.

    What’s really problematic is precisely the fact that faith schools are academically successful, /and/ excluding people based on their religion. It’s unfair and it encourages dishonesty and social division. It’s not even just the schools that discriminate: see for example.

    To address a few points directly:

    > 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.

    First of all, I can’t see why it can’t be taken to be the only reason. Secondly, it’s certainly a significant reason, and probably the main reason, and that’s an injustice, regardless of what other reasons might exist.

    > The BHA’s response is that they would rather limit religion in schools than start new ones, which isn’t a very constructive approach.

    No, the BHA believes that all schools should be secular. Hence, there should not be any “atheist schools” any more than there should be any “Christian schools”. Of course not – that would be just as wrong! Of course, it’s pretty likely that there are many atheists who run schools, and some atheists who run free schools. They just don’t draw attention to this fact, because it’s not relevant. The BHA doesn’t want to start new schools because there should not be any humanist schools – all schools should be inclusive.

  15. I have recently re-affiliated away from my Anglican background to humanism. Whilst I got there in the end it took me 40 years to do so, and a large part of why it took me so long was the normalization of Christianity that I received from school and society at large. I simply wasn’t exposed to humanism, or any other religion at school. Living 40 years of your life in a set of clothes that don’t quite fit is, I think, something that nobody should have to go through. It is, in some real sense, a waste of a life. My own local primary is an Anglican school, and I have two daughters there. There are several things I object to about this school, and they are mostly to do woth the faith ethos. Faith is normalized throughout the school life, and like AC Grayling, I feel this undermines basic human integrity because of it’s logical incompatibility with the search for truth, which is what education should be about. Promoting faith, is, I feel simply immoral and counter to what education is. There are prayer boards in every room, no opportunity is missed to mention how “good” Christianity is, or how a good thing is “thanks to Jesus”. Evangelican groups are invited to give assemblies, in one of which recently the resurrection of Jesus was represented as history. Nothing bad about religion or faith is ever mentionned, and Jesus only says and does good things. It comes very close to propaganda, and children are certainly soaked in it, and, like children do, some of them will soak it up. In fact, if they didn’t the churches wouldn’t bother with church schools at all. They don’t learn about non-religious ways of life, just like me, and although lip-service is paid to other religions, I have yet to see a term’s RE where the special topic wasn’t Christianity. I’m not so worried about my own children, who actually get a different view at home and are unlikely to be persuaded by dogma, but I do worry more about other children and their ability to access alternative views of the world, and to see beyond what they are taught at this school. I think the following sentence in the above article is particuarly telling:
    “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.”
    Not because of educational bias: do people come away thinking “I was indoctrinated in French”, or “I was indoctrinated in Shakespeare”, or “I was indoctrinated in calculus?” The contradictory nature of faith schools is apparent when you change the context. Imagine state-funded political schools, promoting a particular political ethos (e.g. conservative or socialist). It is in this context that the claim above that “It is impossible not to indoctrinate children as they grow up.” is seen for what it is: bogus.

  16. The BHA and other New Atheists are guilty of the same rhetoric they accuse faith schools of. Dawkins and co including the BHA do not encourage free critical thinking, rather they generalise and avoid detail and rational arguments, instead spout ridicule and mocking statements. Just look at their website for kids! No encouragement to explore or try to understand, just their own poisoned point of view!

    • Maybe you can cite an example of ‘Dawkins and co’ not encouraging critical thinking, generalizing and avoiding rational arguments? Otherwise, your reply is full of baseless assertions.

  17. when my little girl started a primary school in our eyes it was because this was a good school,as the years went on my little one loved to learn about the faith of this school and so we started to go to church with her and have done over since she is now 11years old ,we filled in the forms for secondary school and thought everything would be ok.she was put into catagory 5 ,this is for children who are in a faith school and go to another church recognised by the catholic church,when i pointed out that we went to a catholic church not anyother they said well we can not put you in anyother group as your child is not baptised,so meaning we go to church every week we are in a catholic infants school but stand little chance of following onto secondary school because a bit of paper saying she was baptised is not there .
    other children who have been baptised and never attend church are in catagory 2 and will get into these schools.are they catholic because there parents got them baptised at 6 months and then never returned to church?

    • The point of this article wasn’t to say that faith schools are perfect and as is clear from your case the selection criteria can be immensely frustrating. The amount of people who have to play the system suggests that there is something fundamentally unfair with it at some schools. How do we judge if someone is more suitable just because of something, as you say, like baptism, when it does not relate to a practicing faith? What this says to me though is that the demand is for more faith schools, not less. Removing faith schools gives everyone a level playing field, which in one respect could be seen as good, but it doesn’t guarantee the quality of provision will improve. It’s because demand is so high that we have to deal with difficult entry criteria that lead to disappointment for so many families who want their children educated in an environment where faith is acknowledged and given respect. The government is obsessed with choice whether it be the NHS or education. If the opportunity for more faith schools to be established is there and so is the demand, then it makes sense under this ethos to allow it to happen, hopefully giving more parents and children the education they desire.

%d bloggers like this: