It’s not entirely surprising that alongside the start of this new academic year there has been another bust-up over the role of faith schools, their admissions policies and whether they should exist at all or not. Over the last week there have been two polls released relating to faith schools and The Archbishop of Westminster, the Most Rev Vincent Nichols has also added his opinions, describing faith schools as a precious right:
“A Catholic school is a response to the proper and legitimate expectations that parents can look to the state to help them to educate their children in the faith and way of life which is precious to them… This parental right is enshrined in European Conventions.”
This statement was given by the Archbishop during the opening of a the first Catholic secondary school in the London borough of Richmond. The school has been the focus of a most unholy row since the local council first proposed its introduction in 2011. The British Humanist Association (BHA) along with a local campaign group fought a bitter campaign against it which resulted in an intervention from the Education Secretary and the case being taken to the High Court. The case was lost by the BHA with the judge ruling that the council’s plans were entirely lawful. Following the decision, the leader of Richmond Council, Lord True said:
“Over the past year, the British Humanist Association has elbowed its way into Richmond with its clear national agenda of hostility to faith schools – their action has been uncaring and unsympathetic to the many people within the Richmond Catholic community who have worked hard to bring their dream of a dedicated secondary school to fruition.
“It has also totally ignored the parallel action being taken by this Council to provide more places for all.”
The BHA’s involvement in Richmond is one example of its ongoing campaign against faith schools. The BHA is also a founding member of the Fair Admissions Campaign, which works to see the abolition of admissions criteria in state schools based on anything to do with religion. The Fair Admissions Campaign is made up of a coalition of organisations but if you look at its aims it looks incredibly similar to those of the BHA. This should go some way to explaining the motivation behind their research published on Saturday that concluded that Anglican, Roman Catholic, Jewish and Muslim schools are far less likely to reflect the economic status of families living in the local area than traditional community comprehensives. According to the findings 39 out of the top 50 most socially exclusive schools are faith schools.
The data is based on the percentage of children in a school eligible for free school meals compared to that of those living in the local surrounding area. Those schools which have lower levels of free school meals have then been labelled socially exclusive leading to the spurious headline claiming ‘Faith schools ‘selecting wealthy pupils by the back door”. The problem as is so often the case is that this survey doesn’t tell the whole picture. Catholic schools in particular have wide catchment areas that are not reflected in the data. The Fair Admissions Campaign’s own website admits that pupils in Catholic schools are more likely to come from deprived areas. When a similar survey was done by the Guardian in 2012, the respected independent organisation, Full Fact drew the conclusion that whilst the results gave a useful insight they should only be considered in the context of their own methodology.
Looking at the BHA and Fair Admissions websites you could easily be led into thinking that the majority of faith schools are highly selective favouring middle-class church attenders. However according to the Department of Education’s most recent figures, just over a third of all schools in England are designated as ‘faith schools’. 68 per cent are Church of England and well over half of these are Voluntary Controlled and may only have entry requirements based on religious faith if they are oversubscribed. In fact new Church of England schools have been opened this year refusing to admit pupils based on their faith. Previously the Bishop of Oxford who is head of the Church of England’s education board has called on Church of England schools to admit no more than 10 per cent of pupils based on faith saying the church’s mission should not be about “collecting nice Christians into safe places”.
In one sense this whole issue over selection policies is a red herring; a vehicle to give legitimacy to the BHA’s true aim of having faith schools abolished, which they explicitly state on their own website. There is a big leap of thinking required to go from criticising the entry requirements of some schools for being too complicated and narrow (despite being approved by the Department of Education and monitored by Ofsted) to deeming faith schools to be of no value whatsoever and better off extinct. But for the BHA the former is a step to seeing the latter accomplished.
The Fair Admissions campaign and the BHA have a long way to go to win their arguments though. Last week also saw the publication of a substantial YouGov poll revealing what people ‘really think about faith schools’. 56 per cent of those who expressed an opinion thought that faith schools should be allowed to give preference in admissions to children and families who profess or practise the religion with which the school is affiliated. The study did find that 45 per cent of respondents thought that the State should not fund faith schools, but when these figures are broken down there is still support for Church of England schools. Those of non-Christian religions were judged much less favourably. Also faith schools received majority support from younger adults whose experiences of education are much more recent compared to older generations.
Perhaps the most revealing aspect of the survey were the reason why parents would choose to send their children to a faith school. Only 3 per cent gave transmission of belief about God as an influence. Of much greater importance were ethical values, discipline and location. At the top came academic standards.
The reason why many people complain about faith schools is not because of their religious ethos or faith values, but rather because most are popular schools that achieve good results and they want to get their children in but can’t. The dubious stereotypical practice of pushy parents starting to attend a church in order to gain places does little to help matters. The problem is not the faith schools or selection criteria in themselves. Instead it is the lack of places at these schools to meet demand. Closing or even abolishing faith schools will not help anyone and would be an incredibly rude snub to the institutions who founded the education system in this country.
Certainly it makes sense to tackle the anomalies and frustrations that come with entry requirements for some faith schools, but only a fool would throw the baby out with the bath water. The sensible solution would instead be the opposite; to create more faith schools. Michael Gove gave his approval to this idea when he met the Archbishop of Canterbury in July:
“We would not have so many great state schools in this country without the Church of England. I know the Church does a wonderful job helping to raise educational standards and in providing a safe and loving environment for hundreds of thousands of children. However, there is much more we can do together. I want the Church to recover the spirit which infused its educational mission in Victorian times and support more new schools – especially academies and free schools – to bring educational excellence to the nation’s poorest children.”
Faith schools have the potential to offer a more rounded education because faith and the Christian faith in particular leads us to appreciate that there is more to education than just academic achievement. There are moral, ethical and spiritual dimensions that need to be addressed and developed too. As Justin Welby put it at his meeting with Mr Gove:
“The Church of England was at the beginning of national education of this country and continues to be crucial to its flourishing… It is obviously true that good schools help produce an educated workforce. But the Christian vision is a far greater one. It is about setting a framework for children as they learn, which enables them to be confident when faced with the vast challenges that our rapidly changing culture brings to us.”
In contrast, the constant attempt to interfere and undermine the role of faith schools by some organisations appears to be motivated far more by intolerant ideologies than what might actually be best for children and their education. Surely children’s interests deserve to be at the heart of all of this?