Faith Schools in the UK

When you look at the results of opinion surveys and polls, you might think that Christianity is on its last legs in the UK. So can the non-religious majority happily put it to the back of their minds, and imagine that it really doesn’t matter much anymore? In September 2017, Humanism UK referred on its website to recent findings of the British Social Attitudes Survey, published on the 4th of that month, revealing that 71% of 18-24 year olds say they belong to no religion, while just 3% say they are Church of England and 5% say they are Catholic. Most of us in the UK probably get on with our lives pretty much unaffected by what the religious minority get up to. We might have a beef about bishops in the House of Lords, or the monarch being Defender of the Faith, or Thought For The Day on Radio 4 being always presented from a religious standpoint, but really, is this such a big deal?

Where it is very much a big deal is schools, especially primary schools.

If our task were to devise a way of ensuring that society is divided, we’d be hard pressed to improve on segregating our primary schoolchildren into separate schools based on the religious affiliation of their parents. That way we can bring up generations of young people into adults who mistrust “other” on grounds of religion. If we do a great job, we might even be able to achieve separation of the community along religious /sectarian lines. We could deliver a society where many adults have never had friends who are Muslim, or Roman Catholic, or Church of England, and who regard such people with mistrust or even contempt. It worked extremely well in Northern Ireland, so why not try it in the rest of the UK too?

Crazy? You might have thought so, but it’s the road our Government seems determined to drive down, with ever more determination and vigour.

To understand the issue, we need to consider the phenomenon of how the quality of primary schools in the UK is perceived, on a spectrum of excellent at the top, to poor at the bottom. Primary school children generally can’t travel too far from home to school, so there’s a captive audience. But it’s even more specific than that: admissions relate to catchment area, so the choices of school a child can attend are to a significant extent influenced by the precise location of the family home. Where a primary school is situated in a relatively privileged area, with a catchment of predominantly well-educated middle-class families, it will tend to have better results than another school which draws most of its pupils from lower-income families. It might not be popular to say this, and of course results for individual children do vary widely, but it is the perceived results of a school as a whole which matters here, and the data is incontrovertible: parents who are well-educated tend to be better off, tend to be more proactive about the educational attainment of their children, provide better support and environment at home for learning, and tend on average to produce more academically able children. This is reflected in the overall results of the school. The introduction of SATS, and publication of school league tables, have made academic results highly visible, and a major motivator for parents seeking the “best” school for their children. We observe a sort of self-fulfilling catchment-area polarization based on house price. When better-off families move house, they preferentially relocate into the catchment area of a school with good results, thus pushing up house prices still further; lower income families are priced out, and the cycle is reinforced, with if anything an increasing disparity in perceived performance between good schools and so-called “sink” schools.

What has this to do with religion? At first sight, not much, but look more closely. What we have in England in particular is a large number of Church of England Primary schools, many in relatively well-to-do neighbourhoods, and which have benefitted from this self-reinforcing “good school” reputation. There are two notable consequences:

• The Government identifies the correlation between faith schools and better results, and attributes causation. “If we make more schools into faith schools, we will improve outcomes overall.” This is bizarre and flawed thinking, but can perhaps be better understood if one recognizes that many of our politicians, including the Prime Minister Theresa May, espouse devout Christian faith themselves, so might be open to the accusation that they are seeking to further their own religious views, rather than being wholly objective.

• The C of E quite understandably sees a position of influence in control of schools and their admission policy. They know that keen parents will jump through hoops to get their child into the school they want. The higher the proportion of intake they can require to be from families who fulfil certain criteria for being C of E, the more they can persuade people to change their behaviour to fulfil those criteria. Thus, non-churchgoing parents “discover” a sudden interest in attending church regularly, being checked off on a register each Sunday – often for two years or more – and might even gain extra points by volunteering for additional church duties. It’s a win-win for the church. More adult bums-on-seats on a Sunday, and more young children attending Sunday school, and more acceptance of overt evangelizing to young minds within the school environment. Catch more and more children before they’ve reached the age of reason, and there’s a higher chance you’ll keep them.

I could describe this sort of behaviour as cynical, and manipulative. However, from the standpoint of the church, which must by definition regard its work and its message as good, proper, and worthwhile, it is fair game.

But it can only succeed with the connivance of Government, by
• Encouraging the establishment of more faith schools
• Changing the law to allow schools to discriminate on the basis of the religion of the parents. At present, the law requires new faith schools to admit at least 50% of pupils from the local area, irrespective of the faith or beliefs of the parents. Present proposals would scrap this restriction, and allow wholesale religious segregation.

I find this prospect appalling. Evidence shows that religion-based admission policies not only deliver reduced access for local children to attend their local school, but also lead to greater segregation of society on the basis of religion, ethnicity, and socio-economic status. This is an outcome to be deplored and fought against, not encouraged.

If you find this disturbing, and please do what you can to fight the proliferation of faith schools, and to eliminate the right of schools to discriminate their intake on the basis of the religion of the parents.

Make a noise about it. Write to your own MP. Write to the Secretary of State for Education, at present the Rt Hon Justine Greening MP. Join Humanists UK (formerly the British Humanist Association) , who are actively campaigning in this direction.

Please consider the above, and make your voice heard.