Faith schools, by and large, work. They are popular with parents, achieve better grades and are perceived to be strong on discipline and pastoral care.
Conservative leader David Cameron gave a clear indication of his education policies this week with his pronouncement on faith schools.
“I think faith schools are an important part of our system, I support them and I would like if anything to see them grow.
“I think faith organisations bring often a sort of culture and ethos to a school that can help it improve and I’m a strong supporter personally [David Cameron’s daughter attends a Church of England primary school] and politically.”
His comments were interpreted by the Daily Mail as an intent to bring about “the biggest expansion of faith schools since the 19th century”.
In this, he falls broadly into line with the policies of the Labour government since 1997, whose successive Education Ministers have consistently supported faith schools.
In 1998, David Blunkett famously said that he would like to “bottle the ‘ethos’ of faith schools” and apply it to every school in the country.
Although he has been accused recently of “undermining” faith schools, as recently as 2007, Schools Secretary Ed Balls was saying, with specific reference to faith schools:
“One thing we’ve learnt as a government is that having a distinct ethos, strong leadership, a commitment to promoting opportunity for all, those are the kind of schools where parents want to send their children.”
There are many criticisms of faith schools put forward, some easily countered. To the commonly asked question: “do they push a religious agenda in the classroom?” – the answer is straightforward. All faith schools in England – Jewish, Catholic, Sikh, Muslim or CofE – are required to teach the National Curriculum, thus evolution, not creationism.
At the same time, there remain many legitimate debates: Should all taxpayers have to fund schools which are not open to all? Are admissions and employment policies fair? Is the selection process open to exploitation by “pushy parents” willing to feign religious devotion to get their child a place? Does a policy of schools for Muslims, schools for Sikhs, etc, have a socially divisive effect?
The really pertinent question is this, however: Why are successive politicians ready to overlook these concerns? And the simple answer is that faith schools, by and large, work. They are popular with parents, achieve better than average grades and are perceived to be strong on discipline and pastoral care.
Faith schools, accused of higher levels of ‘pupil sorting’ across schools, are now monitoring their own success at social cohesion. A recent report by Professor David Jesson of York University, funded by the Church of England, found that faith schools were better than non-faith schools at building community relations.
Based on ratings from Oftsed inspectors, Prof. Jesson found that of the 74 secondary faith schools surveyed, 24 (32 per cent) were rated “outstanding” at community relations. Of the 337 non-faith secondaries analysed, 55 (16 per cent) were given the same grade.
The atheist philosopher, Prof. Harry Brighouse, has argued that religious education benefits children from secular homes, promoting understanding and intellectual autonomy. Further arguments can be made that enabling Muslim schools, for example, legitimises that religion in society – in much the way that Catholics schools have.
What attracts even secular parents to faith school is the idea of education underpinned by an established set of beliefs, values and a strong narrative. It was, after all, originally the Church of England which established a system of mass education in this country in the 19th century with the aim to educate the poor.
In the 21st century, there will be a real diversity of different sorts of faith provision – the challenge for any government is to enable all children to have access to such an education, and not to allow the provision of faith schools to become another sop to the pushy middle classes.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.