Faith schools are an issue that feature regularly in the British news. About a third of the schools in this country are faith schools, of which the majority are Church of England. We’re sometimes complacent in the UK to think that the established religion in this country is benign, but faith schools give us a reminder that this is not always the case.
Firstly, faith schools are allowed to discriminate, both in their admissions and employment policies. For example, they can prefer children whose parents are regular church attendees. Predictably, in areas where the best school happens to be a religious one, desperate parents attend church for the requisite number of weeks to get their child into the school, before leaving again. Quite apart from the absurdity of this, discriminating on the grounds of religious belief contravenes the Human Rights Act, 1998, Article 9 “Freedom of thought, conscience and religion”. Denying entrance to a school – especially a publicly-funded one – is a clear example of discrimination.
In many cases, faith schools are exempt from having to comply with discrimination legislation:
Schools cannot discriminate against gay or lesbian pupils or their parents during the admissions process or in lessons. But guidance accompanying the legislation makes it clear that faith schools will not face prosecution for teaching in strict accordance with their religious views.
Some Christians, such as Melanie-Mcdonagh, have commented that discrimination is a perfectly normal and acceptable way to run a religious school.
But it’s precisely the fact that they are discriminatory that makes them Catholic, or Anglican, or Jewish, or Muslim.
I’ve heard as much from Catholic colleagues planning to send their children to the local faith school. Worse, there are plans for more faith schools on the horizon.
Thankfully, there are other Christians who have their heads screwed on properly regarding faith-school discrimination. Simon Barrow of Ekklesia writes:
If church schools are overwhelmingly funded by the general taxpayer, as they are, then the public as a whole has a reason to expect that they will be run for all by all.
Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia, a Christian think-tank which regularly comes up with progressive and humanistic suggestions. Together with organisations such as the BHA and The Association of Teachers and Lecturers they have formed a coalition aimed at ensuring inclusive education for all. The organisation is called Accord and includes amongst its supporters people from a wide range of religious and non-religious backgrounds. I’ve already made a small donation to them and I’d encourage those who agree with Accord’s aims to do likewise.
So why are some religious people so keen on faith schools? I think part of it is the popular misconception that people of their own religion are inherently better people, more moral and no doubt they’d like their children to grow up being good people. But another aspect is about the argument from religious confusion.
The argument from religious confusion points out the vast differences in religious beliefs and perceptions of a god or gods across the world. It suggests that this is more consistent with people inventing diverse imaginary gods, rather than with a genuine deity influencing the world and communicating with humanity. There is a plethora of religions out there, each with numerous sects and variations, so what makes any one of them so special? As Ebonmuse puts it,
“The religions on this planet cannot all be right – but they could all be wrong!”.
The great thing about this argument is that it’s so simple, there’s no sophisticated philosophical concepts required. At the age of ten years old, my wife stumbled on the argument from religious confusion while looking at an Atlas. Until then she’d be taught in a convent school with a predictably narrow religious focus. The human statistics she saw showed her that a large number of people in the world weren’t Christian. She still cites this as the first doubt she had about religion.
Faith schools, by separating children from those who believe differently, can keep the argument from religious confusion hidden under the carpet for longer. If everyone you know is a Christian, it’s harder to see the other options as valid. Stereotypes about other faiths can be maintained more easily, their beliefs kept in mysterious shadows, not in the real world, seeming more like fiction than anything which “real” people believe.
I think it’s important that children are taught about religion (aka “Comparative religion”), where lessons are phrased something like, “Some people believe…” rather than “The Truth is…”.
Furthermore, as the religious atheist observes, religious segregation very often means de facto racial segregation too.
The new Hindu Krishna-Avanti school has all Asian pupils. In the same education authority, I suspect that St John Fisher RC School has almost no Asian pupils, nor the Moriah Jewish Day School.
I can’t think of a single instance where social segregation has been a good thing. I don’t expect faith schools to be an exception.