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Faith and education, a potent mix

By Shahid Naqvi, The Birmingham Post, June 16 2008

Birmingham, UK -- Coming in the wake of the launch of the country’s first Hindu school, plans to set up a Buddhist one in Birmingham have re-ignited the debate over faith in education. Education Correspondent Shahid Naqvi takes a look at the thorny subject.

Love them or hate them, faith schools are a fundamental part of our education system. Nearly a quarter of children are taught in them and they make up a third of all state-funded primaries and secondaries.

In Birmingham, there are 91 of them – more than one in every five – and the majority are Roman Catholic. They provide an opportunity for children to be educated within an environment that reflects the faith of their parents.

So what’s the problem? It is, after all, enshrined in the European Human Rights Act that children should have access to an education that conforms to their parents’ “own religious and philosophical convictions”.

Until recent times there was relatively little debate among the general public about faith schools. In the post 9/11 world, controversy has grown, with some suggesting Islamic schools provide breeding grounds for separatist or even fundamentalist beliefs.

There’s no real evidence for this and at any rate to focus on Islamic schools – of which there are only seven in the country – or even Hindu and Buddhist schools, of which there are currently none up and running, is something of red herring.

For most faith schools are Christian. At present there are 4,716 of Church of England denomination and 2,108 that are Roman Catholic.
Those who are against these generally object on three accounts. Firstly, they claim education is a secular activity that should be separate from religion, which is a personal belief system that should be taught at home.

By all means educate children about the world’s religions, they say, but schools should not “force feed” a particular faith down their throats.

Then there is the argument that faith schools are divisive because they divide children along religious grounds which does not help integration.

This, they say, is how prejudice, intolerance and miss-understanding arises.

Lastly, some people believe it simply isn’t fair. Faith schools, by virtue of their ability to prioritise children based on their religious background, select pupils to weed out the most troublesome ones to maintain a good academic record.

In this debate the Government has come down squarely in the pro-faith school camp – and that’s not a bad ally to have.

The previous Prime Minister – a committed Christian – was a big supporter of them. As well as having a personal belief in the importance of having a spiritually-guided moral compass, Tony Blair also saw them as part of the rich tapestry of “choice and diversity” which was part of the New Labour project.

Mr Blair argued there was a long tradition of religion in education and indeed the church was pioneers of free schooling in this country.

The current incumbent at Number Ten has shown little sign of straying from this path.

Indeed, Gordon Brown’s Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, last September claimed parents wanted faith schools and praised their work in supporting “children from lower income or disadvantaged backgrounds”.

All this, however, does not wash with some.

The National Union of Teachers has had difficulty with much of New Labour’s education emphasis. Choice and diversity – viewed by Ministers as a mechanism for driving up performance in services, goes against the NUT’s nostalgia for the comprehensive model where all pupils get the same education.

It believes Blair’s vision has created greater inequality and faith schools have been part of that trend. Furthermore, believes the NUT, they work against social cohesion.

Take a look at some of the statements below from a report produced by the NUT earlier this year entitled In Good Faith:
“... there should be a move away from the current position in which 33 per cent of maintained schools have a religious character. There should be a system of comprehensive schools which is based on equality and reasonable accommodation to meet the needs of pupils of religious belief and those of none and with locally agreed admissions policies which neither privilege or discriminate against children on the basis of the beliefs or practices of their parents/carers...

“Given that public money is used to fund schools with a religious character, the Executive believes that such schools must be open to the wider community in the interests of fostering social and community cohesion”.

Following reports in the national press, the union was forced to write to its members – many of whom work in faith schools – stressing it was not calling for their abolition, blaming misrepresentation by the media.

But it is difficult to see how the NUT’s stance can allow religious schools to survive as they currently do, with their own distinct ethos.

A demand that all schools meet the “religious needs of all pupils and respect the diversity of belief represented within its population such that all faith groups and those with none can attend happily” effectively puts an end to that.

The British Humanist Society, which claims to represent all the “ethically concerned but non-religious people in the UK”, is much more blatant in its opposition.

It believes faith schools fail to “respect the autonomy of children in the vital matter of choosing their own religious and value commitments”.

According to the Humanists, it is “not the job of publicly funded schools to instil a religious faith in children” – education is about ensuring children grow up to be “responsible and capable citizens”.

One argument often given in favour of faith schools is that they produce better results.

But the Humanist attacks this argument with vigour.

“Any selective school can achieve better than average results, and Church and other faith schools are selective.

“They take less than their share of deprived children and more than their share of the children of ambitious and choosy parents.

“This covert selection goes a long way towards explaining their apparent academic success.”

Regardless of philosophical arguments about the rights or wrongs of imposing a set of principles and ethics on children, it’s this last cold academic consideration that probably causes the most perplexity.

It is true that faith schools do out-perform non-faith ones. A look at any league table will confirm that. Why is this the case? The evidence suggests a link between faith schools and social background Government figures for 2005 show the proportion of children on free school meals – an indicator of social deprivation – was 11.3 per cent at Church of England schools. At Catholic schools it was 15.6 per cent. Meanwhile, at non-religious schools it was 20.1 per cent.

Another study by the Sutton Trust shortly after found there were 84 faith schools in the top 200 state secondaries. They took an average of 5.9 per cent pupils on free meals, yet the average for their postcode areas was 15.2 per cent.

It is true that faith schools have to adhere to local admission policies. But they do also have the power to discriminate in favour of children who share their religious denomination.

In practice, as the figures above appear to indicate, it is a system that is open to abuse. You could call it the middleclass snowball effect. It starts with a faith school getting good results. Soon it becomes over-subscribed. In order to get their child into it, ambitious parents who have not been to church in decades, will profess a sudden religious re-awakening.

A child may be baptised just to get into a faith school. The more popular the school, the more parents will use whatever spurious claim to the faith they can to get their child in.

As these “sharp-elbowed” parents are more likely to be educated professionals, such schools quickly become taken over by the off-spring of the more well-to-do.

This social exclusion is further compounded by the habit of middleclass families to move into the catchment of a successful school which, in turn, drives up house prices, contributing to the exclusion of the less well-off.

During his time as Education Secretary, now Health Secretary Alan Johnson – a man of impeccable working class credentials – tried to take on faith schools by forcing new ones to admit 25 per cent of their intake from pupils of other faith backgrounds or those with no religious beliefs.

A backlash from the churches, however, forced him to scrap the policy.

Which all goes to show what a highly emotive and difficult area of our education system this is.

>> Related article:  Buddhist faith school first for Birmingham

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