Faith schools improve social cohesion. Discuss…

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.

He said:

“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.

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17 Responses to “Faith schools improve social cohesion. Discuss…”

  1. Tom White

    1) So apparently only a faith-based education can promote equality of opportunity, pastoral care, and social cohesion? What a statement of defeatism this is. Moreover, the article misses the point that much of the success of such schools comes about *because* they are exclusive – so if we want to go down this route, then why not set up a system of grammar schools? Good schools, academically demanding, and exclusive – and we remove the problem of religious faith…

    2) How “understanding” of gay students are faith-based schools? Bishops in the House of Lords have recently shown, once again, that many Anglicans remain bigoted about employing gay people. Muslims – and there are honourable exceptions – are, by and large, worse. What message is that to promote “tolerance” and “understanding”?

  2. Gabe Trodd

    Hi. I, personally, think faith schools are a pretty bad legacy for Labour, within the context of a lot of great achievements.

    Heavyweight research suggests that faith schools fail to improve standards, but rather create early apartheid and social fragmentation of children along lines of class, ability and religion.

    In particular, research by academics at the London School of Economics and the Institute of Education found no proof that providing parents with the choice of a religious secondary school either raised results or helped drive up standards in other local schools:

  3. Joe

    Totally agree with both Gabe and Tom. I know it’s so very boring; but why not just have good, well funded local comprehensives?

    I am missing something with faith schools? How can they possibly encourage cohesion when their existence suggests we should all be in separate institutions?

  4. Antonine Wall

    DC there with family friendly* Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien there…yes Catholic Schools have done a lot for Social Cohesion in these parts…. as anyone who’s ever been to an Old Firm game can tell you.

    *if of course your family consists of solely of heterosexuals – who abstain from sex until such times they are married and then don’t use contraception

  5. Colm

    What absolute nonsense about promoting social cohesion. I went to a Catholic school, and could count the amount on non-Catholics I knew before I went to university on my fingers. We would regularly fight with the local C of E school (this is in Hertfordshire, not Belfast by the way). Before that I used to live in Kenton, and apparently the Catholic and Jewish kids fought constantly. Would this have happened if they had not been segregated? I doubt it.

    Also, being bound by the national curriculum doesn’t stop the school throwing in a load of damaging nonsense on top. For example, from my school, sacking teachers who had children out of wedlock, and bringing in speakers to tell the girls that if they had an abortion they would hate themselves forever.

  6. Alan W

    Feeble article; good comments.

    It’s not any miraculous religious ethos that explains better results at CoE schools; it’s a predominantly middle-class intake. After all churchgoing these days is essentially a hobby for the smug and affluent. And that’s even before you take into account the many parents who only show their faces to the vicar once in a blue moon to bag a school place for their kids.

    Religious education may well have some value for community cohesion, but only when taught in an otherwise secular environment, with each faith presented neutrally, and also, crucially, with a proper discussion of the reasons why a great many of us consider all religions to be complete nonsense.

  7. Anon E Mouse

    Gabe Trodd – Achievements? Smoking Ban and Foxhunting? Please.

    Joe – Absolutely agree on your comprehensive point. When Labour, in the 64 election, said they would raise the levels of state schools to that of grammars that is what should have been done.

    As an individual I’m sick of the way religion has crept into public life and wish we could stop faith schools from any faith opening and get secular…

  8. Claire Spencer

    My entire pre-University education was provided by Catholic schools in Bath and Bristol. Not everyone at the school was Catholic (students or teachers)- but you had to have Mass, prayers during Assembly and you had to study GCSE RE and Certificate of Theology at A-Level. Other than that, I had nothing of Colm’s experience of Catholic school – we were taught respect for other faiths (and non-faiths), and I received an excellent education. However, this doesn’t invalidate Colm’s experience – it really depends on the school. Drawing such lines between people shouldn’t be part of education. But would my school have been as good were it just an ordinary comprehensive? I just don’t know.

    Of course, if our state system was truly comprehensive, we wouldn’t need faith schools.

  9. Max

    Totally sick of being told that opponents of faith schools have lost the argument. Such arrogance has to be opposed. Ok so will the Tories let atheists have their schools? No. Will the Tories do something about the discrimination against non-religious educators? No. Will they have anything to say about the faith schools that are languishing near the bottom of various league tables? Will they have anything to say on the consequences of segregating children according to their parents’ world view? Pathetic, absolutely pathetic.

  10. Jeuan David

    I think we need a distinct campaign for non-religious schools without that ridiculous requirement to have ‘collective worship’.

  11. Max

    Sadly Jeuan David, with a Tory government round the corner, initiatives like ‘Faith in the System’, more faith-based academies and an established church determined to reclaim what they think is theirs it is only going to get a lot lot worse and I really fear for the future of the secularist who wants to work in education over the next few years. I work in a church school and I want out. Sick of hearing about how good they think the school is when it’s nothing of the sort.

  12. Zimteachnet

    Faith schools improve social cohesion. Discuss… | Left Foot Forward: Faith schools, by & large, work. They are p…

  13. Iftikhar

    The miracle of human variety is in danger of disappearing, if all of us speak alike, dress alike, eat the same food, read the same fiction and enjoy the same music. It would be a great loss to our colourful planet. Public sector needs a multilingual work force. Teachers and police officers can help with race relations in the classroom and in the community. Public sector is seeking multilingual recruits to serve multicultural Britain. The ability to speak languages from Arabic to Urdu is considered to be an asset. Linguistic skills, in addition to the usual entry criteria, will boost the number of recruits in teaching, police, medicine, nursing and the civil service. Bilingual teachers, police officers, doctors and nurses are in a better position to serve the bilingual Muslim community. The language system has been used successfully in the United States. Mary Doherty at TTA, points out those bilingual teachers can be particularly welcome in state schools for bilingual pupils. Various studies show that bilingualism increases overall intelligence. Monolingualism leads to isolationist and inward thinking.

    Exposure to different languages and cultures can increase tolerance. Language learning in childhood lays the foundations for developing real fluency in that language. Every child should have the opportunity to study a foreign language and develop their interest in the culture of other nations. Languages can be seen as an important way of putting more fun into primary learning and of broadening the children experience. Learning a second language boosts your intellectual powers by physically increasing the number of nerve cells in the language centres of the brain. A study at University College London shows that the brains of bilingual people are structurally enhanced compared to the brains of people who can only speak one language. The effect is even more marked in people who learnt a second language before they were five. Speaking a second language is like having access to another world. No other subject expands mental horizons in the same way. In an ordinary inner city school in England, nearly 100 languages are spoken, yet still essentially this is still a monolingual nation. London is the most multicultural city in the world with over 300 languages spoken everyday.

    Bilingual Muslim children need state funded Muslim schools with bilingual teachers as role models during their developmental periods. All state schools where Muslim pupils are the majority should be designated as Muslim community schools. They are in a better position to provide balanced education by teaching the National Curriculum along with Arabic, Islamic studies, Urdu and other community languages. An Islamic atmosphere will help to develop Islamic Identity crucial for mental, emotional and personality development.
    Iftikhar Ahmad

  14. Alan W


    I don’t doubt bilingualism can be a good thing, but since when has “Muslim” been a language?

    The issues arising from teaching children whose primary language is not English, do not in anyway make the case for more faith schools. While it may make sense to recruit teachers in areas with sizeable ethnic communities, who are able to speak their language, there is no reason why those teachers should also have to be of the same religion.

    Neither religion and language, nor religion and culture, can be treated as synonymous. Languages can, and should be, taught in every school in the country. Their value is not controversial. By contrast, the value of the various contradictory and mutually exclusive religions of the world, is obvious only to their adherents.

    While I am prepared to concede (without enthusiasm) the right of parents to impart their beliefs to their children, I think it is a damn cheek to expect taxpayers of other faiths and none to help facilitate this indoctrination.

  15. Claire W

    I have to agree with Claire Spencer above, I was educated at a Normal Comprehensive and my son now attends a Catholic Primary School after a huge bullying problem at his last School which incidentally was C OF E.I have mildly christian beliefs but am not fanatical about it…I have found the Catholic Primary School to be amazing and they actively promote tolerance of all faiths, the mix is appx 60% Catholic, 40% other or no faith. The parents and Children were all very welcoming and the standards of discipline are good. My opinion is that it could be because of the strong moral ethic of the school and the families that send their children there, that is not to say that parents at other schools have no morals but in my experience many of them seemed to want to be their childrens ‘mate’ rather than a parent and that I think is where we get issues with disipline and children being exposed to highly adult media which is damaging and slowly erroding kids childhoods..I will now send all of my children to the Catolic Primary and Secondary School if I am able not because I feel part of an elite ( I certianly don’t come from a rich background!!) but because they have a clear narrative and the families that attend think along the same lines as me, and why should I not have that choice? I personally don’t want to be my childrens ‘mate’ I want to be their mother and find the only school that has a higher concerntration of like minded parents to be the Catholic Scool my son now attends. Children are slowley being exposed to more and more adult material and people are becoming less and less shockable things that 20 years ago would have been unacceptable now seem to be normal and our children have nothing to compare these things to as it is what they have been exposed to since birth by society, it is normal to them to dress like Katie Price at 8 years old! I believe if I can keep my kids protected from these things a bit longer by sending them to a Faith Scool to mix with families that think along the same lines as me then I should have that choice. The local secondary comps are by no means bad schools in fact one is rated outstanding by Ofsted and I went to it myself but I feel the Catholic School offers the ethos I want to instil in my kids and all parents should have that choice no matter what their religion, to me it isn’t about the standard of education but the ethos of the school and the happiness of my kids, my son fits in better at these schools as the other kids are like him. He was bullied at his last school for not wanting to join in when other kids were being naughty and for not wanting to swear as he being a ‘decent’ kid although by no means an angel seemed to be in the minority! In his new school it is the norm to behave well and respect others..

  16. Claire W

    To conclude what I am trying to say above..I don’t think the issue is should we have faith schools but more should society be looking at how we bring up our kids and what they are exposed too perhaps then all schools will have a higer proportiopn of well balanced and well behaved kids who achieve well then people like me won’t need to feel they have to find a faith school to allow our kids a childhood.. schools aren’t failing most are excellent regardless of faith nor is the Governments policy on education it is society and parenting that is failing our kids.

  17. Claire W

    Sorry just one other thing..on the tax issue highlighted by Alan W..there are taxpayers in this country of all faiths Catholic, Muslim, Jewish many of whom work hard pay tax and their parents and grandparents too worked hard and paid tax to our state so why should our state not acknowledge their faith by providing schools for their kids? Your tax may well pay for that and theirs may have paid for your parents sugical procedure, your nans hip replacement, anti biotics for your infection or medicine when your kids have been sick..that is a pretty poor argument to say you don’t want your tax paying for it!!

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