Faith schools: a bad idea just got worse

by Rob Marchant

God knows (if you’ll forgive the expression) what goes on in Michael Gove’s head. In politics, quotas are rarely a good idea at the best of times, but his removal of the 20% cap on teacher recruitment on grounds of religion has got to be a terrible idea, even for him. In short, he is saying that a school may recruit 100% of its staff according to where they worship or, indeed, if they worship at all.

Making decisions at world leader level is a lot harder than people often give credit for. Ataturk largely saved the modern Turkish nation by his wise decision to keep religion separate from state. And, say what you like about him, but Tony Blair usually had a pretty good nose for decision-making. However, there were undoubtedly the odd times as prime minister when he had clearly had an off-day, a row with Cherie or one too many gin and tonics the night before. Announcing his departure in 2005 but not saying when; the London mayoral elections; and faith schools. Anything involving religion seemed to have the potential to cloud Blair’s judgement, and occasionally cause him to ignore the timeless advice of one A. Campbell: not to “do God”.

So a scheme was cooked up to bolster faith schools, as a way to lock in the perceived positive effect of “specialist” status on academic achievement. Now, I can see the attraction for the Tories – they think they can get good academic performance “for free” – but isn’t there a flip-side to be considered? Why are faith schools such a bad idea?

Well, first and fundamentally they impose a religion on a child which they might not want. As Richard Dawkins brilliantly points out, there is no such thing as a Christian child, merely a child of Christian parents. Children should have the right to choose whether to belong to a religion or not. And parents should not coerce them either way against their will – in fact, this is article 14 of the UN convention on the rights of the child.

Second, faith schools are supposed to give preference to one religious way of life while still maintaining that others are equally valid. But this is a non-sequitur. You cannot tell a child that this way of life is the best one and expect them not to think that another one is inferior. It is human nature, and it is particularly true in children, to make comparisons. In the end, it will not affect all children – some will make up their own minds anyway – but this teaching cannot help but encourage some to see people from a different faith in a negative light, or simply not to relate to them.

Thirty years ago, there was some level of religious segregation at primary schools, but one of the great boons of state education was that it tended to iron out those differences by lumping everyone in together at secondary level and making them learn to get along. Now this is changing. Secondary schools run along religious lines do not create cultural ghettos: but they help to do that. They mean that all the role models tend to come from the same culture: and that is surely unhelpful.

Third, there is a more worrying issue for Muslim schools in particular, which is that we have only modest control over what happens inside them. We have already seen how educational establishments can be not exactly effective at stamping out extremism. Look also at the worrying goings-on around the East London Mosque. There is only one way of creating a jihadist – people are not born that way –  and that is by educating them as such. Pulitzer prize-winner Thomas Friedman’s excellent book, Longitudes And Attitudes, shows how the 9/11 terrorists were educated in Saudi schools, where the subjects were not maths and chemistry but Islamic studies and, er, more Islamic studies.

Before someone goes off on one, yes, it’s obvious that Britain is not Saudi Arabia. There will be other subjects on the curriculum and probably 99% of Muslim faith schools will be pillars of the establishment, with decent teachers doing a great, if sectarian, job of educating kids. Agreed.

But the point is that the forming of young minds is the only way that terrorists get created, and that’s why you need to be so careful about protecting them from extremists. Worryingly, there are already examples of this in faith schools. And you don’t need a whole school system to be messed up for there to be problems. We do not need 1% or even 0.1% of Moslem students to be exposed to an extremist mentor – as, let’s not forget, they may easily be outside of school – for there to be a problem. And the various Muslim organisations and community leaders have a habit of being defensive and slow to condemn when community-related problems are found – remember Jack Straw’s remarks about the alleged “grooming” of young white girls in the Pakistani community.

Sounds terribly Daily Mail, doesn’t it? But perhaps it is not. Put simply, there are too many risk factors in the equation: faith schools plus even a tiny minority of radicalised educators plus politically correct educational establishment plus ostrich-like communities come to together to mean trouble. And, even if the risks were overstated, the first two factors alone are enough to make faith schools a bad idea.

And that’s even before you get into sex education or homophobic bullying, both of which are problems for many faith schools. Or the legal quagmire which surrounds the recruitment of up to 100% of faith school teachers on religious grounds, which is openly discriminatory (imagine if you said you could only employ men, or non-Jews, or non-gays in a school!).  Oh, and it’s probably illegal under EU law, not consistently enforceable (how do you prove you’re a Catholic?) and objectionable under basic employment rights.

Oh dear, Michael.  What a mess.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left.

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12 Responses to “Faith schools: a bad idea just got worse”

  1. Andrew says:

    I was going to bother reading the whole article, but even reading a couple of paragraphs it screams “ANTI-RELIGION BIGOTRY” at me.

  2. James Reade says:

    The alternative is you force people to have a secular, atheist education instead. Either way you influence the young minds of people one way or another. To try and present the idea you can teach kids in a completely neutral way is ridiculous at best.

    Yes, kids aren’t Christian (I don’t think it takes someone like Dawkins to point that out really), but that isn’t the point. Neither is any idea of “forcing” kids by coercion to be Christian. That doesn’t happen and nor should it, and that represents the kind of misrepresentation of Christian faith schools all too common on the left.

    The point is you’re just arguing for schools that promote your PC worldview which is anti-Christian and anti-faith. Whether you like it or not (Blair tried to hide it sadly) your faith (or lack of it) influences everything you do, and so trying to keep your beliefs apart from the rest of your life just isn’t ever going to happen, and nor should it.

    As for reducing the potential for terrorism – fat chance! If anything, being forced into a monotone propaganda PC school will push people to the extremes even more than they currently are.

    For a change, I actually support a Tory policy. I feel a little bit dirty.

  3. Robin Thorpe says:

    I agree that Faith Schools are a bad idea, I also agree that openly preferring one faith based system over another also has the potential to distort attitudes towards other groups within society. As you mentioned this prejudice will include both other religions and non-religious groups such as homosexuals.
    The problem we have is that ALL schools that are run by the LEA are also to some extent faith-based schools. It is required by law that all schools have to include some Christian worship in their curriculum. This is not just teaching about religion, but active worship. Parents are allowed to opt their children out of this element of school but this will undoubtedly mark their child(ren) out as different. The extent to which this indoctrination is undertaken will obviously depend on how devout the teacher/head teacher at any given school is.
    If you believe, as I do, that religion has no place in state-sponsored education then attacking the faith school concept is not enough. The entire approach to religion within schools needs amending.

  4. AnneJGP says:

    Hang on. You say:
    In politics, quotas are rarely a good idea at the best of times, but his removal of the 20% cap on teacher recruitment on grounds of religion has got to be a terrible idea, even for him. In short, he is saying that a school may recruit 100% of its staff according to where they worship or, indeed, if they worship at all.

    So quotas are a bad idea, and removing a quota is a terrible idea?

  5. Rob Marchant says:

    @James, you make a big assumption, which is that I am anti-Christian, or anti-religion. I am not. I am tolerant in a way that perhaps religions are not with each other. (By the way, you’re the first person to accuse me of being PC in a long time, so well done.) In fact, I would temper what I am saying with the fact that Christian faith schools have probably less potential to contribute to the ghettoising communities than non-Christian ones. But the principle is still the same. There is no reason to impose your religion on a child without that child’s consent.

    By the way, I see nothing “ridiculous” in having multi-faith religious classes as mandatory, so that al children sees all faiths and can pick one, or none, as they choose. What IS ridiculous, on the other hand, is thinking that schools rather than parents have the responsibility of inculcating moral values into our children.

  6. Rob Marchant says:

    @Robin, while I see your point taken to its logical conclusion, I don’t think it’s necessary to alienate all religious people while coming up with a policy. I just think that faith schools are a step too far, especially at the secondary level where young adults are formed and their relationship to the outside world starts to be defined. The clear risk is that they grow up silos.

    @AnneJGP, no, my comment stands. I say that having a quota (for number of staff recruited according to religious observance) is a bad idea in the first place, and now you have a quota (100%) which is absolute. Gove has removed the CAP, not the quota. No quotas have been removed.

  7. richard says:

    Ideas will always be imposed on a child and in the first instance by its parents and later at school by other members of the cohort. You simply cannot bring children up without inposing some ideas on them. Perhaps you should take the children away from their parents at birth and indocrinate them with your own views. But then that wouldn’t be right would it?

  8. AnneJGP says:

    Rob, my apologies. I was thinking the quota was what they had to have in order to qualify as a faith school (like the PSNI with a necessary quota of Roman Catholic recruitment).

    So at the moment, then, every faith school is obliged to recruit at least 80% of its staff from people who are not of that faith. To be fair, I can see that could make it quite difficult to maintain a particular ethos.

    Surely, though, it will be some time before the changes work through the whole system? Even if our secular schools are teeming with faith-based teachers eager to transfer to the faith schools, the non-faith teachers first have to choose to leave the faith schools they’ve chosen to work in. (I imagine no-one is suggesting they could be forced out, or am I wrong there too?)

    Quite an upheaval all round.

  9. Rob Marchant says:

    @Richard: quite simple. Indoctrination by parents fine, and right. Indoctrination by schools unnecessary. Parents can do enough indoctrinating without them, and the schools can give a useful non-doctrinal contrast to the parents, so as to give the child a pluralistic view of the world and make their own choices. Is that so bad? Faith schools, on the other hand, bring them up in silos, away from different views and cultures. How is that good?

    @AnneJGP: accepted. Not quite right, they are already allowed to recruit up to 100% of one faith. The difference is, they cannot INSIST on it, although I’m sure some manipulation may well go on behind the scenes to get a higher percentage. The real difference now is that they WILL be able to insist, and are allowed to actively exclude those from other faiths, or atheists, from the teaching staff, full stop.

    I guess that you are right that none will be legally forced out (although I may be wrong) but a lot will feel pressure to leave if the head starts announcing a “new ethos” for the school. There will undoubtedly be “soft pressure” in some cases. The practicalities are horribly divisive and discriminatory.

  10. James Reade says:

    The thing that irritates me most is the idea that religion is “imposed” on kids at these schools. I had secularism “imposed” on me at school by that metric.

    Kids are taught about what the Christian faith says at a Christian school, about what the Muslim faith says at a Muslim school, and about what the Jedi faith says at a Jedi school. That’s it. You don’t make someone a Christian by mentioning what the faith believes, nor does having some “worship” each morning make you a Christian either, any more than the lack of it at my school didn’t make me an atheist either.

    The simple fact is you will always indoctrinate a child, whatever you do. To think schools won’t do that because you instead tell them to teach kids something else is unrealistic.

    To give one concrete example. We all grow up now with a relativistic worldview if we have come out of the state school system. All views are equally valid, no-one is wrong. As the Manics once wrote, “this is my truth, tell me yours”. This says that two people in a room, one arguing the world is flat and the other the world is round, both have the “truth” and its intolerant for me to say the guy saying the world is flat is wrong. The fact is, one of them is right and one of them is wrong. That’s what a secular, supposedly neutral state school education teaches kids to think. That’s indoctrination.

    A more useful thing to be teaching kids is that there is some truth out there (shock horror people can be wrong!), there something called absolute truth. Whether we can know it is another matter entirely. If there is one thing that religious schools do well is that they produce kids with a more realistic view of the world, regardless of whether they believe in that faith or not. I can tolerate someone’s view, love the person, but still thing they’re wrong.

  11. Rob Marchant says:

    James, appreciate your comments and, well, perhaps you are reading me a little wrong. This is not an attack on those with faith and I didn’t say that any kind of religious education equals indoctrination. I am, in fact, pro religious education, as I believe it helps people understand each other. It should merely be balanced with learning about other faiths as well, that’s all. Answer me this: why should not any child have the right to say “I do not want to go to church/synagogue/mosque”, but there are clearly some schools which insist on this. By the way, the difference between secularism and religion is that secularism does not make value judgements, and I am not sure how secularism can ever be “imposed” as you claim. But we are getting into very philosophical territory here: I am clearly not going to convince you that this is not a fundamental attack on your right to educate your child as you see fit. It is not. Perhaps you see the UN Rights of the Child as political correctness, I see it as a fundamentally important tenet.

    Meanwhile, it seems while homing in so much on the first point of the argument, we miss the other two which are just as, if not considerably more important. The first fundamentally accords with Britain as it has been for some time, at least in a minority of schools. The second and third are about changes to the status quo which I believe could have a negative impact.

    My comments, if you read the article carefully, are about faith schools making kids grow up in a monoculture, without meeting either other kids or teachers from outside their religion and/or culture on a daily basis. This is a real issue, whether or not you choose to accept it. As I say elsewhere, common sense suggests that it is more of a problem for some faiths than others, and it is likely to be more of an issue for, say, an inner-city Pakistani community than a country Catholic school.

    Finally, I like and agree with your idea about there being many “truths” in a world which is shades of grey. However, I’d like to see some evidence of your assertion that religious schools “produce kids with a more realistic view of the world” – a valid opinion perhaps, but not really a valid argument. Can’t see any reason to think that those from secular schools are any less realistic.

  12. James Reade says:

    Happy to accept religious schools aren’t perfect – wouldn’t try to argue otherwise either! And I agree there are problems in particular parts of the country – I grew up in Oldham so I’m aware of them, but I don’t think that imposing particular things on schools is going to work – after all, the kids that grew up in ghettos there (Werneth for example) grew up under the national curriculum! And this 20% cap you don’t seem to like much.

    Yes, you’re right that my argument about a more realistic worldview is an opinion more than anything, but I think you’d be surprised at the extent to which those educated in Christian schools are more able to understand and accept the worldviews of others. I had an incredibly shallow and narrow understanding because of my education in a secular school. And much as you try and suggest secularism cannot be imposed on someone, it remains a set of world views that clearly by being different from Christian world views are views and values nonetheless that will be imposed on a child.

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