God and our schoolsPosted: September 26, 2013
In to-day’s Guardian, Zoe Williams asks “Why is God suddenly so big in the schools we all pay for?” In her excellent article she singles out two particular phenomena are making the faith school issue high profile at the moment – free school growth and the admissions scandal. But crucially she asks a question that is not often raised. Fans of religious schools base their argument on the right of parents to have their children educated according to their beliefs.
But this seems to be a right that only applies to religious people. As in so many areas, saying something is a matter of faith is held to trump all other considerations. Parents who want a secular education seem to have no equivalent right – they are expected to put up with whatever is on offer after the requirements of religious people have been met.
In practice this means that in a lot of the countryside, there is no choice but to go to a Church of England school because it’s the only one there is. More seriously, perhaps, in a number of areas the opening of more faith schools is building in an ethnic divide – and taking away choice from people who want their children to go to a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural school.
There is now a clear push to expand religious control of schools. In 2012, the Church of England was quite explicit about wanting to expand its schools in order “to confront the growing influence of secularism” – an ideological objective that was not within any national curriculum the last time I looked.
What this means in practice of course is getting more parents into churches using the carrot of semi-selective church schools. The motivation can easily be understood when you look at a report just today of a church assembly being told “The Church of England will cease to exist in 20 years as the current generation of elderly worshippers dies. In the past 40 years, the number of adult churchgoers has halved, while the number of children attending regular worship has declined by four fifths.” Yet it is thought to be sensible to give this organisation a greater and greater say over our school system.
Some faith schools are determined to be as exclusive as possible – Catholic schools in particular will usually only take non-Catholics if they can’t find enough Catholics. Others – including faith based academies – offer what they often call “open places”. It’s often argued that this makes it all right – there’s a fair distribution of places to religious and non-religious families. That however ignores what goes on inside the school.
For example, the Mosaic Jewish Primary Free School seems proud to describe itself as “a cross communal, mixed school” and it offers half its places to non-Jewish children. But probe a little deeper and you find it provides “a comprehensive Jewish studies programme” which includes teaching Hebrew from reception year upwards. This is hardly an offer that will meet the needs of the many parents who want a balanced secular education. But with the current shortage of primary places, they may have to put up with it.
Above all of course there is the admissions issue. A familiar story (see the previous post on this site) but it’s one that has been given a higher profile as a result of recent research by the Fair Admissions Campaign. They have documented the outrageous level of underhand selection going on. It found that “of the 100 worst offending comprehensives on the basis of FSM, 69 have admissions criteria that are religiously selective – including 18 of the worst offending 20.”
The data in this report needs to be hammered home. When you can have schools with fewer than 10% of pupils on free meals in areas where the average is around 50% something is very badly wrong. When many of these schools represent a religion that is supposed to prioritise the care of the poor, weak and vulnerable it’s particularly shocking. This is something we are usually too polite to mention.
The Fair Admissions Campaign (http://fairadmissions.org.uk) argues for an end to faith based school admissions. The other place where we need change is in the admissions code. When schools are so blatantly unrepresentative of their community, it should be a reason for automatic investigation and intervention. In most areas of the public service now it’s assumed that the interests of service users are more important than the self-interest of providers. School admission seems to be one area where this rule doesn’t apply. It’s time that changed.