The last few weeks have seen a lot of stories about state funded faith schools, based on new research and novel events. I hope that this will bring the general subject back to prominence, as it has been too much obscured by the controversy surrounding ‘free schools’ I have a Comment is Free piece on the subject today:
With all the controversy in the last year or two over the government’s free schools programme, the issue of state-funded faith schools has been somewhat eclipsed. This isn’t because their expansion has been at all reduced – if anything it has been accelerated – but public attention has shifted. Events of the past few weeks should reignite the debate, as a fuller picture emerges than ever before of just how our education system is manipulated, and the rights of children negatively affected by the ongoing, ramifying policy error that the existence of state-funded religious schools represents.
At the end of March, the Church of England published the Chadwick report. This ambitious report set out an aim to establish 200 more Anglican schools over the next five years. The report threatens church schools that will be more evangelical than in the past, and outlined as a “key premise that applies equally to children of the faith, of other faiths and of no faith” that schools would “work towards every child and young person having a life-enhancing encounter with the Christian faith and the person of Jesus Christ”. Michael Gove subsequently welcomed the report, saying that he would “extend the role of the church in the provision of schools”.
And where is the public accountability for this extension of involvement? Research published on Friday revealed that, over the past five years, when people were given a choice between a new faith school and another school opening in their area, they chose the other school a whopping 85% of the time. In spite of this, faith schools have continued to expand: almost two-thirds of state-maintained faith schools to open over this period have done so by the back door outside competition with other proposals. Never has the playing field been so uneven in favour of religious schools, nor with as little public scrutiny.
Nor has the pernicious effect of the discriminatory admissions policies ever been so clear. Guardian research in March showed that faith schools took fewer pupils requiring free school meals than other schools, their religious selection criteria constituting a de facto form of socio-economic selection. It all reinforces the arguments that where faith schools do get better results (and let’s not lose sight of the fact that often they don’t), this is mainly down to the admissions criteria. (Academic reputation is also really why parents “choose” these schools – only 9% of parents consider religion to be one of their three most important factors when picking a school.)
Preferential treatment at the stage of opening; permission to discriminate in admissions; the third main traditional concern over state-funded faith schools is in their legal right to teach a skewed curriculum. Aletter just last weekend, from a wide coalition of leading sexual health groups, unions and others, questioned why groups such as the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children have been allowed for so long to go into schools and spread falsehoods about abortion and contraception. More outrageous has been the news that the Catholic church promoted to all pupils in its secondary schools a petition against gay marriage in a way that is unacceptable for any publicly funded body and distressed many pupils. The Welsh government immediately announced it was investigating if the law had been broken and the Department for Education in London followed suit.
But, with the evidence mounting, the government should be investigating not just the incidents of the last fortnight, but also the whole principle of allowing such discrimination within our state education system at all.