In my previous article (120: No More Faith Schools) I argued that, in a contemporary multi-cultural society, it is necessary to have a secular education system. There is no place for a state-supported system of faith schools. Such schools are discriminatory, divisive, controlling and a wrongful use of public money.
Religion has a definite role and function in public education, but not one based on a confessional and/or evangelical approach that cedes control of the system to religious institutions and sacerdotal influence.
Earlier this year the National Secular Society (NSS) launched its campaign called No More Faith Schools. The objective of this campaign is to petition for an inclusive education system – an education system that is free from religious discrimination and proselytization. The campaign recognizes that the influence of religious groups on state education urgently needs to be rolled back.
Part of the NSS campaign is to expose some of the myths surrounding faith schools and their operation in the UK.
In this article I wish to mention five of ten such myths and, as with all myths, religious or otherwise, to expose their lack of reality and basis in fact. In a subsequent article I will complete the list of ten myths with a further five
(In what follows, I acknowledge the use of material from the NSS’s campaign).
MYTH 1: “Faith schools give parents greater choice”. The reality is that faith schools actually restrict choice for many parents.
The proliferation of faith schools serves to restrict choice for parents who do not want a faith-based education for their children, or who do not share the religion of their local school. In some parts of the country, parents are left with little other option but to send their child to a school with a religious ethos.
Though religious organisations want more faith schools, most parents and the general public just want good local schools and acceptable academic standards – very few choose faith schools for their religious characteristic.
On the other hand, some families who may be desperate for their child to attend a religious school (usually Church of England), sometimes lie about their faith, attend church, or even have their child baptised into the faith of the school, in order to increase their chances of getting in. In this way, religious selection in faith schools unfairly limits parental choice.
Surveys have shown that the vast majority of voters, including those from every religion surveyed, disagree with religious selection in school admissions.
Therefore, a move towards an inclusive and secular education system would mean no child would be discriminated against on account of their parents’ religion or belief, and that all schools would be equally appropriate for parents of all faith backgrounds, or none.
MYTH 2: “Faith schools achieve better results”. The evidence does not support this contention.
There is nothing magical about a ‘faith ethos’ when it comes to academic success. Where church schools do achieve marginally better results it is usually down to faith-based selection – this also leads to social selection which unfairly benefits middle class and better-off parents.
Research published in 2016 by the Education Policy Institute found that after adjusting for “disadvantage, prior attainment and ethnicity,” pupils in primary schools with a faith ethos “seem to do little or no better than in non-faith schools”. Pupils in secondary schools with a faith ethos record only “small average gains” over non-faith schools or “just one-seventh of a grade higher” in GCSE results.
Various bodies have published research which shows that schools with a faith ethos, whilst showing minute academic gains, came with a risk “of increased social segregation”, “admit fewer pupils from poor backgrounds than the average non faith school”, and operate extremely convoluted admissions procedures that enable them “to select their pupils from more affluent backgrounds than non-faith schools.”
One body of research found that the influence of religion on education may even be detrimental to some results, that is, “excess time spent on religion in schools harmed progression in other subjects – including maths and science”.
MYTH 3: “Faith schools are better at teaching children morals”. Against this bland assumption it needs to be emphatically asserted that the teaching of basic morals is not solely the domain of faith schools.
All schools teach children such basic values as honesty; integrity; compassion; tolerance and many others. There is no evidence that faith schools do it better. All maintained schools in the UK have to promote basic human values in education (the spiritual, moral, social and cultural values and development of all pupils).
So too, all schools must actively promote the values of “democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance for those with different faiths and beliefs”. Such values are often mistaken as “Christian values”. This is a mistaken notion, as is the fact that “non-Christian” values – therefore persons – are inferior. Church school inspections are often guilty of promoting this dichotomy.
Education about ethics and morality in schools should be based around the universal principles of reason, empathy and the concept of fundamental human rights, rather than forced through the lenses of religious teachings.
MYTH 4: “Faith schools are necessary to protect parents’ religious freedom”. The state has a duty to provide schools and to respect parents’ religious freedom, but the case law is clear that this doesn’t create a duty for the state to provide faith schools.
Religious institutions cater for the variety of family religions. Schools cater for education, not sectarianism. All state schools should be open, inclusive and equally welcoming to all children whatever their religion and belief backgrounds. This is not to be anti-religious. Parents may wish for but do not have a right for the state to raise their child according to religious tradition – nor to cover the cost of doing so.
Religion and belief communities exist to promote their worldviews, schools don’t. Faith schools undermine many parents’ ability to raise their children in accordance with their religion/belief.
It’s also a mistake to assume that religious people necessarily want faith schools. Many people of faith are opposed to religious discrimination. They don’t see faith inculcation as the state’s role, or have other reasons for supporting inclusive schools.
People live out their religion or belief without the need for faith-hospitals, faith job-centres, faith-transport systems or other faith based/divided public services. Why faith schools? An inclusive school would be secular, that is, it would neither be specifically religious or atheist; it would fulfil the educational requirements of all children as individuals.
A secular education system is perfectly consistent with protecting individuals’ religious freedom.
MYTH 5: “Faith schools don’t do any harm – why not let them just be?” On the contrary, faith schools build division into society and undermine religious freedoms. The harms vary depending on how aggressively they push their religious ethos.
Research has shown that faith schools have a negative impact on social cohesion, foster the segregation of children on social, ethnic and religious lines, and are antithetical to freedom and equality.
Organising children and young people’s education around religious identities is the worst possible response to Britain’s growing religious diversity. Schools are our golden opportunity to foster understanding and tolerance amongst tomorrow’s generation. It is utterly misguided to squander this opportunity by continuing to fund and promote faith-based education.
Of course there is a range of faith schools and some are more harmful than others, especially those that push their religious ethos very aggressively, sinisterly seeking to shield children from secular knowledge and actively turning pupils against the society in which they will grow up.
Faith schools propagating the idea that religious identity/inculcation is a valid purpose of education, including the traditional CofE faith schools that are seen as more of a ‘light touch’, actually promote and validate intolerant attitudes elsewhere in society.
Legitimizing the idea of organising state education around religious identity/inculcation, opens the doors for the worst aspects of faith schools and are directly responsible for creating a ghettoised education system.
Myths 6-10: to be continued…

About stewculbard

I am a retired secondary school teacher of Humanities, having spent a major portion of my working life as a Minister of Religion with the Baptist denomination. I would now describe myself as a secular humanist and a socialist. I am married to Vicky and we have three children - two sons and a married daughter - all of whom are in their thirties. Formerly of Melbourne, Australia, we are all now living in England. My academic studies have been undertaken in Australia, the UK and the USA. I have a doctorate in religious studies from the San Francisco Theological Seminary. In retirement I enjoy reading, listening to classical music and writing. I am a member of Republic, Sea of Faith, Dignity in Dying Campaign and the National Secular Society. As well, I have a subscription to a number of cultural and political associations, including Amnesty International and, as a committed European, The Federal Trust.
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