Why the non-religious are getting “overheated” about British “faith” schools

The Bishop of Oxford and the Theos Think Tank are complaining that the debate over state-funded “faith” schools in the UK is getting “overheated” and too “ideological”. So let me explain, from the non-religious perspective, why this is so.

First, the number of people attending a Christian church in a typical week in the UK is down to about 6%. Yet fully a third of taxpayer-funded schools are handed over to be run by Christian churches. This means they can discriminate on religious grounds over which pupils they admit, and further, they then get frequent opportunities to proselytise to the captive-audience pupils and can compel them to participate in Christian worship.

Despite the fraction of the population attending church being in long-term decline, and despite the number of people regarding themselves as “non religious” rising fast, the number of “faith” schools is increasing, with thousands of new religiously-restricted places being set up each year.

Why are the non-religious getting “overheated” about this? Firstly, we regard the very concept of taxpayer-funded schools being able to choose pupils according to their parents’ religion to be morally wrong in a modern society that should treat all citizens equally. The fact that this requires a special exemption from the 2010 Equality Act is revealing.

Second, let’s be clear that the popularity of these schools is not because they are religious, the parents tend not to care about that (only 8% citing that reason), what they care about (cited by 77%) is that the schools attain high standards, and they do that because those schools are socially selective, preferentially taking children from middle-class families with supportive parents, and preferentially excluding children eligible for free school meals, and badly behaved and problem children, and children from families that don’t care much about education and don’t jump through the hoops to get their children in.

Faith School Logo

Thus the schools are socially selective, and thus they have better behaved children and better exam results. And thus parents want their children to be in that company and thus the schools are over-subscribed. And that allows the school to use its control over admissions to reinforce the social selection, and thus perpetuate its advantage. Being over-subscribed, such schools don’t have to take the problem children expelled from other schools, yet can expel their own problem children.

In order to play this game parents have to be religious, or pretend to be religious. But the schools aren’t too fussy about the latter, when it comes to children of middle-class supportive parents, because it gives them years and years to evangelise to the children. Only a few percent of children are taken to church by their parents on a Sunday, but a third of the nation’s children are handed over to “faith” schools, to be subjected to daily religious assemblies and daily required worship.

Religious school assembly

You can see why the churches like this system, and angle for more church-controlled schools. And you can see why the parents who can get their children into the schools like it, since they get the benefit of socially selective, better-performing schools without the cost of private education. And you can see why the politicians like it: the schools do well — owing to the social selection — and the politicans like to support high-performing schools. (And let’s not discount personal advantage: Cameron, Clegg and Blair have all used the system to ignore their local schools and send their own children to better-performing “faith” schools some distance away.)

The drawback is that by allowing a third of state schools to pick their pupils, something denied to the other two thirds, which get the pupils that the Local Authority allocates to them, the remaining schools get a much bigger proportion of the unwanted children, the problem children and the ones with unsupportive parents, the sort of parents who don’t care or are unable to jump the hoops. Such schools inevitably tend to be lower down the league tables than the “faith” schools that get to pick their pupils.

So, what about the half of the population that is not religious these days? They can pretend to be religious, and play the game of getting in to the “faith” schools. Many do. But isn’t this whole system blatantly unfair, utterly iniquitous? Any non-religious family that sticks to its principles has a much poorer choice of schools than the religious family; they have no choice but the school that has to take all the pupils allocated to it, including all the pupils that the faith schools didn’t want.

Such parents might want their child to go to a school in walking distance (for the child’s health and for avoiding car use), but find that the school, a taxpayer-funded school, won’t take them owing to their lack of religious belief. Such parents may question the sense in segregating British school kids by their parents’ religion (see what that led to in Northern Ireland), yet such concerns are ignored.

Yet this is all about social selection and not about religious ethos, it isn’t the religion that the parents want. So why is it that only the churches get to play this game? Why can’t other groups, perhaps “higher-rate taxpayers” or “Tory voters”, have their own schools, with the power of selection and the right to reject less-desirable children? You can bet they’d be popular with those who qualified. The answer is that the government — for good reasons of social cohesion and the avoidance of sink schools — won’t allow it. It doesn’t allow it for anyone other than religious groups.

One might accept some degree of hold-over from that past, some historical relics from the times when religion dominated society. But faith schools are being increased at a time when society is getting progressively less religious, and the Bishop of Oxford, who already has a million school children under his control, all funded by the taxpayer, is asking for still more faith schools!

Faith Schools

When the non-religious protest about this system, and ask for Fair Admissions, for a rule that says that no state-funded school may discriminate over the religion of the child’s parents, they are accused of getting “overheated” and “ideological”. The Christians are trying to shut down the debate simply to protect their privilege.

Yes this is ideological: some of us do regard religious equality as a fundamental moral principle. You can bet that, were it Christians who had the far worse choice of taxpayer-funded schools, then those Christians would very quickly get “overheated”. After all, they get emotional enough about employers who ask them to wear a crucifix under their clothing rather over it, a trivial matter compared to childrens’ education.

Sorry, Mister Bishop of Oxford, sorry Theos Think Tank, this is a matter of fundamental principle and moral fairness. We should have two new rules for taxpayer-funded schools:

1) No school may ask about or discriminate over the religion of a child or the child’s parents, when deciding who to admit.

2) Any religous participation or worship in schools should be optional and opt-in, and clearly perceived as such by the pupils. Religion should be a free choice, not something coerced.

That’s only asking for what America and France achieved centuries ago. The majority of the population here are opposed in principle to faith schools; only a third support them. So why are they being expanded? Politicans think that they’ll lose votes if they don’t pander to the religious lobbies but presume that the non-religious won’t care. We non-religious need to start voting. Getting “overheated” is a good start.


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