Facts about faith schools

If there’s one thing that the anti-religious in Britain agree about it is how evil faith schools are. It is commonplace of both liberal atheists and right-wing Islamophobes to attribute almost every problem in British society to them, from unsuitable attitudes to women to suicide bombers. (One of the reasons for this emphasis is that there are so few other areas in which religion is formally given any status. It’s hard to work up that much indignation about the presence of a few bishops in the House of Lords, although Polly Toynbee will always try.)

Amid all this emphasis on faith schools, it might be worth bringing such actual facts to bear on the case. (This an area where the facts are often not considered: see for example, http://education.guardian.co.uk/faithschools/story/0,,1714762,00.html, where the key statistic used by the Guardian’s leader writer on social affairs to describe church schools as ‘villains’ in school segregation proved to be wrong). I want to concentrate on England (since there are different issues for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales) and on the argument that faith schools should be removed from the state system. (I don’t want to go into the argument this time as to whether more faith schools should be encouraged, since this gets into wider issues about how decisions should be made on new schools and in whose interests).

A bit of a trawl on the DfES website gives you the figures for numbers of faith schools in England.
Table 8 of Schools and Pupils in England 2005 (http://www.dfes.gov.uk/rsgateway/DB/SFR/s000606/SFR42-2005.pdf) includes the following statistics. There are 17,642 state primary/middle schools. 64% of these have no religious character, 25% are Church of England, 10% are Catholic. 0.2% (34 schools out of over 17,000) are non-Christian faith schools. There are 3,385 state secondary schools. 82% of these have no religious character, 6% are Church of England, 10% Catholic, 0.3% (11 schools) are non-Christian faith schools.

In other words, almost two-thirds of state primary schools are secular and over 80% of state secondary schools are. Having been to both Church of England primary and secondary schools, I’d also say that their attempts at religious indoctrination were pretty minimal; moreover it is now official Church of England policy that a proportion of pupils should be from non-believing backgrounds, so these statistics may still over-emphasise the religious effect. As for non-Christian faith schools, they are almost non-existent in the state sector: the entire hype over funding for Islamic schools concerns 3 primary schools and 2 secondary schools.

All this suggests that even if you did get rid of faith schools in the state sector it would have relatively little effect on social segregation. There would still be a lot of separation in some areas due both to ethnic minorities tending to be concentrated in particular areas of towns (only soluble by bussing), and by the fact that the middle classes (largely white) tend to be more adept at working the system to get their children into ‘nice’ schools. (If they weren’t pretending to be religious, they’d still find another way).

The evidence from abroad also suggests that the removal of faith schools from the state system wouldn’t have the two other impacts that the anti-religious imply it might have: reducing ethnic/racial tensions and removing religion from public life. France and the US are the obvious examples of determinedly secular state systems and yet neither of them have resulted in the peaceful integrated society of non-believers that is the desired outcome of the anti-religious. There seem, instead, to be two paradoxical effects of secular state schools. One is that parents who insist that their children have a religious education go into the private sector, where schools are generally less regulated. The other is (at least in the US) that there is no teaching of religion in state schools (to avoid any suspicion of sectarianism) and so children know less about all religions, and are more open to other less balanced sources of information. State faith schools, by encouraging a more regulated teaching of religion, may be a better prospect than these options. (For an interesting Jewish take on faith schools, see http://education.guardian.co.uk/schools/comment/story/0,,1769081,00.html).

Finally, the would-be secularists fail to provide any detail on how faith schools should be ‘abolished’. In both voluntary aided and voluntary controlled schools (by far the most frequent forms of state faith schools) the school land and buildings are owned by the church/religious body; in voluntary aided schools, (the majority), the church/religious body also contributes funding. We’re no longer in the days of Henry VIII, where church assets could be plundered at will. It would cost a fortune and cause massive disruption either to buy out the schools from the voluntary organisations or to set up new ones.

All this suggests that the abolition of state faith schools is a handy slogan for bashing religion more than a coherent policy. If the anti-religionists really want to get faith schools to crumble away, they should be concentrating on creating and supporting community (secular) schools so attractive that fewer parents feel the need for faith schools.

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