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Glass in their Snowballs: the faith schools debate
Derek Gillard
December 2001

copyright Derek Gillard 2001
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Churches and other religious groups already own about a quarter of England's state-funded schools. Tony Blair's New Labour government wants them to run even more. In this article I survey the background, analyse the arguments for and against and conclude that England needs more faith schools like a hole in the head.

Historical background

The earliest schools in England were the 'Song Schools' of the Middle Ages, where the church educated the sons of gentlefolk and trained them to sing in cathedral choirs. By the sixteenth century the church had began to set up Elementary Schools to cater for other sections of the community. Indeed, until about 1880 virtually all education in England was provided by the church.

As education provision expanded rapidly in the early years of the twentieth century, so did the cost, and the churches began to look to the state to meet some of the expense:

As standards have risen and inflation of costs has bitten deep, the voluntary bodies have increasingly needed to seek financial help from the public authorities. Thus the Acts of 1902 and 1944 were significant steps in redefining the relationship as a measure of independence was exchanged for the comparative security of financial support from the public service. (Brooksbank and Ackstine 1984:21)
The use of public money to finance church schools caused controversy right from the start. There were 'obstructive passions raised when the involvement of the churches in education was debated on a number of occasions before the First World War' (Brooksbank and Ackstine 1984:231).

The system established in 1944

The current system is largely the result of negotiations between Education Minister RA Butler and Archbishop William Temple during the preparation for and passage of the 1944 Education Act. The Act 'created a unified framework which brought the church schools under state control but left them with varying degrees of independence according to how much financial support the church continued to provide' (Mackinnon and Statham 1999:110). LEA (Local Education Authority) schools were named 'county' schools; those owned by the churches became 'voluntary' schools. Of the latter, there were two main types - 'Aided' and 'Controlled'. Aided schools (about 4,300 in the 1990s) provided their own premises and met some of the maintenance costs in exchange for a degree of control. Controlled schools (about 3,000 in the 1990s) provided their own premises but all the running costs were met by the LEA and the governing bodies had control only over religious education. (There were also a few 'special agreement' schools). Almost all the voluntary schools were owned by the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church. (The 1998 School Standards and Framework Act changed some of the names - county schools became 'community' schools and grant-maintained schools became 'foundation' schools, for example - but the framework remains much as it was).

Today, surveys show that 45 per cent of the population of England has no religious faith and that nearly a third do not believe in God. Less than 10 per cent of the population is actively religious. Out of a population of sixty million, fewer than a million attend Anglican services on a Sunday.

By contrast, a quarter of England's primary schools (6,384 schools with 790,000 places) and one in twenty secondaries (589 schools, 150,000 places) belong to the churches. (There are also 120,000 children in church-owned independent schools). Of the religious schools, forty are non-Christian, thirty-two of those being Jewish.

New Labour's first term

Labour returned to power after eighteen years of Conservative government in June 1997. Relations with the Church of England got off to a shaky start when Anglican bishops warned that the Lords would contest the new government's 1998 School Standards and Framework Bill. The bishops felt it would dilute church representation on the governing bodies of Aided schools and change their religious character by amending admission procedures. They were also concerned that controlled schools opting for foundation status would lose their religious character. David Young, Bishop of Ripon and Chairman of the Church of England's Board of Education, said that church schools 'are excellent and sought after and we wish that position to be maintained.' The new Secretary of State for Education, David Blunkett (pictured), assured them he did not want to upset the compromises of the 1944 Education Act which allowed church schools a considerable degree of autonomy within the state system. Stephen Byers (then School Standards Minister) said, 'We value the role that church schools play and therefore we will not be introducing any measures which would weaken or diminish their position' (John Carvel The Guardian 23 October 1997).

The new government was clearly aware that a system which gave huge amounts of state funding to thousands of Church of England and Roman Catholic schools but hardly any to schools of other faiths was inherently discriminatory. Anxious to demonstrate its commitment to multiculturalism, it quickly set about addressing the problem.

In January 1998 Islamia Primary School in Brent (London) and Al Furqan Primary School in Sparkhill (Birmingham) became the first state-funded Muslim schools in England. Two months later, on 9 March, Stephen Byers announced that the John Loughborough Secondary School in Haringey (London) would become the first state-funded school to be run by a minor Christian denomination, the Seventh Day Adventists. It would get a full public grant from September and 0.5m to improve facilities. Clinton Valley, head of the predominantly Afro-Caribbean school, said 'It is a just decision ... Britain is now coming to embrace all its children.' Local MP Bernie Grant said 'While Catholic and Church of England schools have been publicly funded, these parents have had to pay for exercising their choice, which was discriminatory and wrong' (John Carvel and Ruaridh Nicoll The Guardian 10 March 1998).

During 1999 two more Jewish schools were given state funding and a Sikh school became the first of its kind to become state-maintained.

Having thus demonstrated its commitment to minority faith groups, the government now turned its attention to the Church of England. In July 2000 Education Minister Estelle Morris wrote to Lord Dearing, head of a committee reviewing the church's education provision. She indicated that the government would consider ways of helping dioceses raise the estimated 2m they would need to meet the initial cost of building each of a hundred new secondary schools over the next five years in order to educate at least 100,000 teenagers 'in a religious environment'. Dearing noted that all three main political parties were 'well disposed to the creation of more church schools' and his committee urged each of the forty-two Anglican dioceses to consider opening at least two new church secondary schools (Stephen Bates The Guardian 21 July 2000).

2001: Proposals and problems

In the run up to the General Election of 2001 it was clear that religion was becoming a serious element in the government's - or, at least, in Tony Blair's - thinking on a number of issues, not just education. In February the government published a Green Paper announcing its intention to increase the number of single faith schools and on Thursday 29 March Blair (pictured) addressed a conference of religious organisations from both Christian and other faith backgrounds, organised by the Christian Socialist Movement at Westminster Central Hall. He outlined his own religious motivation in politics and stressed the value of religion in modern society. He insisted that church schools were a pillar of the education system, 'valued by very many parents for their faith character, their moral emphasis and the high quality of education they generally provide.' More widely, he called for religious charities and organisations to become partners of the government in promoting health and welfare provision. Blair, 'the most religiously-inclined prime minister for many years, has been generally cautious about speaking of his faith but is known to have been irked by [Conservative Party leader] William Hague's attempts to annex Christian morality for the Conservatives' (Stephen Bates The Guardian 30 March 2001).

The idea of partnership between government and religious organisations came from America, where it had been promoted by evangelicals such as presidential adviser Jim Wallis, who spoke at the Christian Socialist Movement conference.

But even as Blair was developing his plans for partnership with the voluntary sector, George Bush's plan to channel US government aid to 'faith-based' religious charities was running into trouble. The 'Church' of Scientology said it would be seeking government aid for its drug rehabilitation and literacy programmes, based on the 'dianetics' theories of the group's founder L Ron Hubbard; the Hare Krishnas were gearing up to solicit federal funds for their houses for released prisoners and shelters for the homeless; the Moonies (now renamed the 'Family Federation for World Peace and Unification') were planning to ask for taxpayers' money to promote their sexual abstinence programmes in schools; and Conservative Christian bodies were expressing anxiety that Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam organisation might also try to become a beneficiary of Bush's initiative (Martin Kettle The Guardian 13 March 2001).

Concerns about the direction of government policy were beginning to surface here, too. Senior Labour Party figures warned Blair of the danger of mixing religion and politics in the drive to win votes. Former deputy party leader Lord Hattersley said 'evangelising' was dangerous and could alienate sections of society, and Martin O'Neill, Chair of the Trade and Industry Select Committee, said 'We could be in danger of reinforcing social divisions in the name of alternative forms of provision' (Lucy Ward The Guardian 26 March 2001).

However, none of this deterred Blair. Following Labour's General Election victory in June, his ministers issued a series of pronouncements all indicating the government's intention to pursue the religious route. It was announced that the capital contribution for voluntary aided church schools would be cut from 15 per cent to 10 per cent and that other government proposals would open the door for the church to work with the private sector in running weak or failing schools (Rebecca Smithers The Guardian 15 June 2001).

Lord Dearing's report The way ahead into the future of the 4700 Church of England schools in England was published shortly after the election. It recommended improving the patchy provision of church schools in the primary sector and increasing by about a hundred the number of church secondary schools by expanding existing ones, building new ones and taking over failing ones. Dearing said 'The church probably has the best opportunity to go forward in education that it has had in 50 years.' Canon John Hall, adviser to Dearing's committee and General Secretary of the Church of England Board of Education, said that twenty 'local discussions' were already going on to set up new church secondary schools.

Once again, support for these moves was by no means unanimous. Peter Smith, General Secretary of ATL (Association of Teachers and Lecturers) commented 'Religious belief is a private belief not a state issue ... It is truly amazing how many people develop strong religious beliefs if they think that the best school in the area is a "faith school".'

On 18 July Schools Standards Minister Stephen Timms declared that the 'great majority' of secondary schools would soon be specialist schools (attracting extra money as well as kudos), or 'beacon' schools (boasting a distinctive character or ethos) or schools based on a religious faith. To these would be added the new 'City Academies', set up in partnership with business and community sponsors and the churches.

Rebecca Smithers (The Guardian 19 July 2001) noted a number of widespread concerns:

  • would the effective abolition of the 'bog standard' (Alastair Campbell's description) comprehensive school create a two-tier education system? Specialist schools would flourish while their poorer rivals would become unpopular sink schools. How extraordinary that Labour should embrace, with little or no evaluation, a scheme originally launched by Margaret Thatcher in the shape of her City Technology Colleges.
  • the daunting array of labels gave the impression of more choice. But would that really be the case? Parents would find themselves having no choice except the specialist school on their doorstep. Why commit a youngster at 11 to a specialism which may be entirely inappropriate seven years later?
  • the problem of selection. Specialist schools which became very popular would be forced to resort to selection on a larger scale.
  • diversity between schools (rather than within them) would result in 'a hierarchical structure for schools, with little incentive to help each other out or pass on best practice.'
  • Head Teachers were concerned about 'the time and effort they have to devote to bids' and that 'the government's plans will lead to one set of schools being treated as high-status and high-funded and the rest low-status and low-funded.'
There were other problems. Indeed, 2001 was not a good year for anyone seeking to promote religious involvement in education.

A report commissioned by Bradford Council examined the extent of racial problems in the city and concluded that communities were becoming increasingly isolated along racial, cultural and religious lines, and that segregated schools were fuelling the divisions. The report was prophetic. At Easter, rioting broke out in Bradford and images of burnt-out cars and boarded-up pubs appeared on television news bulletins. Martin Wainwright noted (The Guardian 17 April 2001) that 'some of Bradford's most moderate and liberal politicians are worried about the imminent prospect of a Muslim high school; a logical step, given the success of Catholic and Jewish schools, but with obvious implications for ghettoisation.'

During the summer the rioting spread to Oldham, Greater Manchester, Burnley and back to Bradford, where, in mid July, there were three nights of violence. Police in riot gear faced an onslaught of bricks, bottles, petrol bombs and fireworks, two men were stabbed, more than fifty were arrested and 120 officers were injured in 'some of the worst disturbances seen in Britain in twenty years' (David Ward and Patrick Wintour The Guardian 12 July 2001). The new Secretary of State for Education, Estelle Morris, appeared to lack her predecessor's enthusiasm for single-faith schools when she acknowledged that the issue was 'a political hot potato for the government.' She announced that 'local concerns would be listened to in areas of racial tension' (Rebecca Smithers The Guardian 19 July 2001).

Archbishop of Canterbury Dr George Carey (pictured) tried to play down fears that 'faith-based schools' perpetuated inter-religious conflict. Some Church of England schools in Bradford, he pointed out, catered almost exclusively for Muslims. Roy Hattersley commented (The Guardian 30 July 2001) 'We can only speculate about what happens at the compulsory act of worship. But we can be sure that British Muslims will not take such a relaxed view of their educational obligations.'

Then, as the autumn term began, television screens were filled, night after night, with images of angry Protestants shouting abuse and hurling stones at five year old Catholic girls and their parents making their way to Holy Cross Roman Catholic School in the Ardoyne. Of all Northern Ireland's obscenities in the past thirty years, this struck many people as the most appalling. The pictures of hate-filled adult faces and little girls crying faded from the news bulletins after a few days, but the problem didn't go away. As late as mid-November, four hundred police were being employed daily to see fifty children safely to school. The Protestants were not entirely the villains they were sometimes made out to be. Their actions were a product of the insecurity they felt as a result of what they saw as Catholic encroachment into their area. Nonetheless, the message that religious differences breed hatred and intolerance couldn't have been more vividly portrayed.

Despite all these problems, the government's White Paper Schools achieving success, published on 5 September, contained much about the involvement of the private sector - including the churches - in failing schools, and about independent religious schools being welcomed into the state sector 'with clear local agreement'. However, Will Woodward, Patrick Wintour and Rebecca Smithers suggested (The Guardian 6 September 2001) that 'the government's enthusiasm for these has waned since the Bradford riots.'

Then there was 11 September. Several thousand people died when the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York were demolished by terrorists fired with fundamentalist religious beliefs. Hostility to Muslims grew and the government talked about extending the protection of the blasphemy law to cover religions other than Christianity and about introducing a new law which would make illegal the incitement of hatred on the grounds of religion. (Perhaps they should have heeded the words of US statesman and scientist Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790): 'When a Religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and, when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it so that its Professors are obliged to call for help of the Civil Power, it is a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.')

However, even if Estelle Morris was beginning to wonder whether the government was doing the right thing, neither the race riots in northern towns nor the obscenities of the Ardoyne - nor even the grotesque wickedness of 11 September - did anything to quash the enthusiasm of the faith groups to grab some government cash. Tracy McVeigh (The Observer 30 September 2001) pointed out that there had been 'a huge rise in approaches from religious organisations over the past few weeks.' And it wasn't just the mainstream churches. The DfES (Department for Education and Skills) revealed on 29 September that 'considerable interest' had been expressed by minority faith communities in setting up schools within the maintained sector. Forty projects were already being planned, including a 12m Islamic secondary school for girls in Birmingham, an evangelical Christian school in Leeds and a new Jewish school in London. The Salvation Army and the Seventh Day Adventists said they were evaluating 'opportunities created by the White Paper.'

Opposition grows

Others were less enthusiastic. Government ministers privately expressed concerns and academics predicted disastrous consequences for racial and religious integration. Labour peer (and friend of Tony Blair) Lord Alli, said 'Anything which encourages isolation and segregation in communities through education is a recipe for disaster.'

Liberal Democrat Education Spokesman Phil Willis said 'I think there is a real danger here of educational apartheid ... we have already seen children excluded from their local school because they are of the wrong faith, and any organisation which gets state funding should not be allowed to be partisan. It is a particularly bad vision for areas like the mill towns of Lancashire where we have already seen such flash points of race tension this summer. This is the twenty-first century. We should be attempting to educate citizens of the world, not narrow-minded, parochial, sectarian citizens.'

The National Secular Society pointed to the report of Lord Ouseley (former Chairman of the Commission on Racial Equality) on the Bradford riots. Pride, not prejudice had warned of deep divisions caused by segregation in housing and education: 'There are signs that communities are fragmenting along racial, cultural and faith lines. Segregation in schools is one indicator of this trend.'

The LGA (Local Government Association), representing education authorities in England and Wales, said that it had 'deep reservations about the drive to increase faith schools. The move is potentially divisive and would be another indication of central dictation of local education provision.'

Tim Brighouse, Chief Education Officer of Birmingham, said 'Faith schools will hinder race equality if they are evangelical schools admitting people of only one faith.'

Given all these voices raised against the state funding of religious schools, it was surprising, to say the least, that the government still seemed to think it had widespread backing for its proposals to increase the number of such schools. By mid-November 2001 it was clear that no such support existed. A poll of nearly 6,000 people, published in The Observer on 11 November, found that only eleven per cent were in favour of more faith schools. Extraordinarily, the poll showed a higher level of opposition to the government's faith schools initiative than there had been to the privatisation of British Rail or even to Margaret Thatcher's poll tax.

Education Secretary Estelle Morris (pictured) was said to be privately less than happy about the policy but found herself in an impossible position. She was faced on the one hand with a policy she inherited from David Blunkett and which still, apparently, had the strong support of the Prime Minister, and on the other, by her own DfES officials who were said to be concerned that new Muslim and Hindu schools would be boycotted by white parents and would end up catering only for Asian pupils.

However, she swallowed her concerns and on 14 November she told the General Synod of the Church of England, with breathtaking irony, that anyone who was against government proposals for more faith schools was intolerant. 'For hundreds of years we have tolerated and respected parents' right to choose a faith-based education. Are we now saying that in 2001 we can no longer be tolerant about that?' (This was arrant nonsense. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with intolerance. It depends what it is you're intolerant of. We tolerated slavery for hundreds of years but I don't see Estelle Morris bemoaning the fact that we tolerate it no longer).

She went on to announce that it would be a statutory requirement for church schools to 'build links with other local schools to prevent their becoming too exclusive' (Stephen Bates The Guardian 15 November 2001). What on earth was that supposed to mean? It was clearly intended as a sop to the many who had expressed concerns about the policy while being vague enough not to worry the churches.

In mid December, several reports were published on the riots in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford. As expected, they raised serious concerns about the role played by single-faith schools in the segregation of communities. The Community Cohesion Review Team chaired by Ted Cantle called for 'measures to tackle schools dominated by a single ethnic group' and proposed that 'church and other faith schools should offer at least 25 per cent of their places to pupils of other faiths' (Alan Travis The Guardian 11 December 2001). Similarly, David Ritchie's report on Oldham recommended that three church secondary schools which currently accept no Muslim pupils should ensure that up to 20 per cent of places are open to non-Christians.

Despite these damning reports, Downing Street was still said to be supporting the creation of yet more faith schools.

Arguments for and against church schools

It is not difficult to see why the churches and other religious organisations are keen to open more state-funded faith schools.

'For the established church, eager to fill pews, schools are the only product they have left to offer that people actually clamour for' (Toynbee 2001a). But it isn't just the Church of England that needs faith schools to fill the void left by the departure of its worshippers. Other faiths are worried that future generations will see little point in adopting the old belief systems. The Hazrat Sultan Bahu Trust wants to build a state Muslim girls' school in Birmingham. Rafaqat Hussain, its president, said 'this is allowing children to be educated in a familiar atmosphere where they can have prayers at the right times without timetables clashing and where other issues important to our faith can be accommodated ... we are losing our youth ... values are not being passed on ... there is a growing concern that we must go back to traditional values, and those are not being met in the inner-city comprehensives.' Did he really mean 'allowing children' or should he have said forcing them? Did he mean 'Where they can have prayers' or where they will have prayers?

Obviously, there is a great deal of self-interest in the faith groups' desire for more religious schools. They see such schools as a lifeline. 'Few who first meet religion in adulthood are able to take it seriously; priests know that to keep the old faiths alive, they have to get their hands on children' (AC Grayling The Guardian 24 February 2001).

But why is the government so keen on faith schools? Is it just because the Prime Minister is himself a committed Christian? Or because a number of his colleagues in government are also religiously inclined? What are the arguments they put forward in support of the faith schools policy? They can be summed up in Tony Blair's phrases 'moral emphasis' and 'high quality'. Each is worth examining.

The notion that faith schools promote spiritual and moral values

Tony Blair has made much of his view that faith schools promote spiritual and moral values in their students (the implication being, presumably, that county schools don't). In addition, the White Paper Schools achieving success said 'We want faith schools that come into the maintained sector to add to the inclusiveness and diversity of the school system and to be ready to work with nondenominational schools and those of other faiths.' An account of recent events in Oxford suggests that these aspirations are little more than pious tosh.

St Augustine's School (pictured) has been a successful joint Roman Catholic/Anglican comprehensive school for many years. However, during negotiations concerning the reorganisation of Oxford city's schools from three-tier to two-tier, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham, the Most Rev Vincent Nichols, suddenly announced his intention 'to withdraw his support from August 2003 from the special joint provision, originally made when St Augustine's was established' and to propose instead the setting up of a Catholic secondary school to meet the 'legitimate pastoral and educational needs of the Catholic community in Oxford.' This was in spite of the commitment of St Augustine's governors to continue with joint Catholic and Church of England education (The Oxford Times 28 July 2000). This posed a problem for the Church of England. There was no room in Oxford for an additional secondary school, so without the joint school, there would be no Anglican secondary provision in the city. Astonished parents were told by the Church of England that the Catholics were threatening 'to evict the school from their buildings' unless they got their way. The Archbishop of Birmingham responded by accusing Anglicans of acting 'with little regard for the basic principles of ecumenism.'

The battle for St Augustine's 'was merely the prelude to an even more bitter clash, which briefly saw the two churches in an undignified competition to create a new church-aided school in Oxford' (Reg Little The Oxford Times 21 September 2001).

The insults flew back and forth for a year until, in September 2001, the Church of England authorities gave in and raised no objections to Cardinal Newman School being expanded into a new Roman Catholic secondary school. In return, the Catholics agreed to offer full support to any Anglican proposal for a new Church of England school in the future. This wasn't much of a deal for the Anglicans, since the chances of a new secondary school - of any sort - being set up in Oxford in the foreseeable future are effectively nil.

The problems didn't even end there. In October 2001, members of Oxfordshire Education Committee called on the Catholic authorities 'to accept local Muslims and children of other faiths in the hope of strengthening community ties.' The Catholic response was not exactly positive. Fr Marcus Stock, spokesman for the Catholic archdiocese, said 'We are setting up the Catholic school to provide a school primarily for baptised Catholics. The Catholic community actually pays extra money for the privilege of making a decision over admissions' (The Oxford Times 12 October 2001).

And it's not just in Oxford that such insular and confrontational attitudes can be seen. The Church of England says its schools offer opportunities to pupils and their families 'to explore the truths of the Christian faith' (not, apparently, to question them). Furthermore, 'church schools should give preference to parents with Christian backgrounds, employ Christian teachers as far as possible, and make sure Christian teachers get preference when it comes to promotion. Heads must be committed Christians. The schools must force all children, even those of other faiths, to say Christian prayers' (Francis Beckett The Guardian 13 November 2001).

In other words, Christian schools do not exist to teach respect for other faiths, but to instil Christianity. The same goes for other faith schools. According to its mission statement, the state-funded Islamia School in north London strives 'to provide the best education, in a secure Islamic environment, through the knowledge and application of the Qur'an and Sunnah.'

So the idea that faith schools promote tolerance, respect and cooperation is nonsense.

Some of them have pretty dubious values when it comes to punishment, too. In November 2001 forty 'Christian' independent schools asked the High Court in London for the right to hit their pupils on the biblical grounds that 'the rod of correction imparts wisdom'. They claimed that the ban on corporal punishment breached parents' rights to practise their religion freely under the Human Rights Act and that 'corporal punishment is part of their Christian doctrine.' The Head Teacher of the 'Christian Fellowship School' in Liverpool, Phil Williamson, said 'It is really for parents to have the right to send their children to a school whose standards and values are the same as in their own home ... Since 1987, when corporal discipline [sic] was removed from state schools, standards have plummeted and it is reflected in the violence in our classrooms ... For younger pupils, we would smack them on the hand or leg using the teacher's hand. With older pupils, girls would be strapped on the hand by a lady teacher, and boys would be smacked on the backside with something akin to a ruler, but wider,' he said. 'We have vast experience in using these means.' Perhaps Mr Williamson is trying to emulate Dr Busby, Head Master of Westminster School during the seventeenth century, who 'was regarded by flagellants as perhaps the finest expert with the rod that England has ever known' (Gibson 1978:13).

The NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) responded: 'Harking back to some Dickensian view of schooling is no way for a civilised society to treat its children.' The DfES opposed the application, saying it represented a misunderstanding of the true purpose and nature of the Human Rights Act (Tania Branigan The Guardian 3 November 2001). Fortunately, the High Court rejected the application on the not unreasonable basis that beating children is hardly an essential feature of the Christian religion.

'Dickensian' is right. What an appalling vision of education. Values? Morality? You must be joking. And remember, these are the sort of schools which now want to get their hands on your taxes.

The perception that faith schools get better results

The line that 'church schools get better results' is widely peddled and rarely challenged. I have already noted the views of David Young, Bishop of Ripon, that church schools are 'excellent and sought after'; of Stephen Byers, School Standards Minister, that 'we value the role that church schools play'; and of Tony Blair himself, who thinks church schools provide a 'high quality of education.' Lord Dearing's report The way ahead said that 160 children applied for every 100 places in church schools and claimed that this indicated that there was a clear demand for religious education. But, as Polly Toynbee pointed out (2001a) 'No-one with a straight face can pretend the demand is for religion: it is for results.'

Is there any evidence of the 'high quality' or the 'better results' that church school proponents claim? On the contrary, there is evidence that church schools are not providing a better education than non-church schools - that they may even be providing a poorer education, given the nature of their intake.

Some of the claims made for faith schools are, to say the least, disingenuous. Canon John Hall, the Church of England's Education Officer, told The Times Educational Supplement that St Christopher's Church of England School in Accrington 'regularly outperforms' the neighbouring community school, Moorhead High. But, as the TES discovered, the church school has only 12 per cent special needs children while Moorhead has 69.8 per cent. Hardly a fair comparison. Indeed, with figures like that one would be entitled to expect that the church school would achieve significantly better results.

In October 2001 Civitas (The Institute for the Study of Civil Society) published their report Faith in Education. It demolished the myth that church schools are centres of excellence and called into question the 'unthinking policy' of expansion of faith schools. The report looked at DfES data on Church of England and Catholic schools from National Curriculum test results at the age of seven up to GNVQs and A Levels and concluded that there was 'an enormous and unacceptable variation in standards between schools across Britain that was as marked in church schools as it was in local authority schools,' that 'churches were failing to monitor the standards being achieved in their schools' and that 'parents should not assume church schools equalled a quality education.' John Marks, Director of the Civitas Educational Unit said 'One of the most striking findings was the variation of standards. They really were huge, we're talking about a difference of pupils being three years behind children of the same age at another school. The churches should really be concerned. I would say to parents that they cannot assume that a church school is a better school.'

According to the Civitas findings, compared with their peers at non-church schools, fourteen year old pupils at Church of England and Catholic schools are on average about six months ahead in maths and nine months ahead in English. However, all pupils are, on average, achieving substantially below expectations for their age - church school pupils are fifteen months behind, non-church school pupils up to two years behind (Tracy McVeigh The Observer 14 October 2001).

On the face of it, being six months ahead in maths and nine months ahead in English would seem to indicate that church schools are doing better than county schools. But then you have to take into account the advantages of back door selection. 'God may move in mysterious ways,' wrote Polly Toynbee, 'but there is not much mystery in the way He runs His schools: He does it by selection. By ensuring a strong core of dedicated, ambitious parents who know how to congregate in the same schools, church schools mostly get better results' (Toynbee 2001a).

So is it true that church schools are selecting - either intentionally or otherwise - more able children from 'better' backgrounds? A key indicator of a deprived background is the take-up of free school meals. The figures are instructive. Across the country, 17.6 per cent of primary-age children get free school meals. The figure for Roman Catholic schools is 16.1 per cent, for Church of England schools, just 11.5 per cent (Gaby Hinsliff The Observer 18 November 2001). Local Government Association spokesman Graham Lane commented, 'Anywhere the governing body is choosing the students, they tend to reject those children that need extra resources.'

Another key indicator is the proportion of children designated as having special educational needs. Polly Toynbee examined the league tables for the Borough of Lambeth (London). Most of the schools which scored 80 per cent - 90 per cent for eleven year olds in maths, English and science were faith schools. But the church school which topped the borough table with 100 per cent in science had only 8 per cent of special needs pupils, compared with some of the county primary schools which had 50 per cent. Toynbee commented, 'No wonder parents queue at the altar for the wafers and commute their mighty four-wheel-drives across the borough for a good Catholic education.' On the other hand, one Catholic school with no special needs pupils got 'very mediocre' results while one outstanding non-church school with an astonishing 59 per cent of special needs children got results over 90 per cent (Toynbee 2001a).

A similar situation exists in relation to 'statemented' pupils - those with statements of special educational needs. Government figures for 2000 show that 1.6 per cent of children in mainstream primary schools and 2.5 per cent of students in mainstream secondary schools were statemented. The figures for Church of England schools were 1.5 per cent and 2.2 respectively, while Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh schools had even lower figures (Gaby Hinsliff The Observer 18 November 2001).

As Polly Toynbee declared, 'If the government wants to introduce more selection, why not say so, instead of going through this religious rigmarole? It is just a fig leaf for the simple and universal fact that the most motivated parents and the middle classes will always navigate every school (or health) system, to congregate in the same places, making them better as a result' (Toynbee 2001a).

One of the reasons that Bangladeshi and Pakistani parents often prefer segregated education for their children is their perception that the local comprehensive fails them. But under-achievement has many causes, and one of them is the amount of time some of these children spend in mosques studying the Qur'an, according to a report by Dr Mohammed Ali, Chief Executive of a Bradford charity. 'Quantity not quality is provided in most British mosques and madrasahs and that is probably one of the reasons for the poor educational performance of British Pakistani pupils.'

In fact, comprehensive schools can and do provide good quality multicultural education. Polly Toynbee reported on Plashet Girls' School in East Ham (London). 70 per cent of its students are Muslim (Bangladeshis and Pakistanis), 10 per cent Hindu, 10 per cent Sikh and 10 per cent Christian. Bushra Nasir, its Muslim Head Teacher, 'has gone to extraordinary lengths to accommodate every religion.' Special arrangements are made for assemblies, the uniform, diets and Ramadan. The proportion of students gaining five A-C grade GCSEs has risen from 28 per cent to 59 per cent, and many now go on to university. 'With great care an ordinary state school can educate girls well, with enough sensitivity to satisfy religious anxieties - better by far than segregating the faiths' (Toynbee 2001b).

It is clear, then, that the two main arguments put forward in favour of faith schools do not stand up to critical scrutiny. There are other arguments against such schools.

Sectarian divisions

That sectarian divisions are a serious problem has been amply demonstrated by recent events in Northern Ireland and in Bradford and other northern towns. We have already seen that Lord Ouseley damned segregated schools as a prime cause of racial hatred. He spoke of 'attitudes hardening and intolerance to differences growing.' Bradford's Education Committee has no say in the school admissions policies of the four Catholic, two Church of England and one Muslim secondary schools in the city.

Religious schools cause apartheid in Oldham, too. Grange School is 97 per cent Asian while the Church of England's Blue Coat school is almost entirely white. Why the segregation? 'Because Blue Coat, like Oldham's other C of E secondary, demands church attendance from parents with a vicar's letter to prove it ... Officially there is rejection of bussing children across race and class lines as attempted once in America, yet parents from all over Greater Manchester are happy to bus their children into Oldham's two "good" white schools' (Toynbee 2001b).

Single faith schools deny children the right to grow with and learn about people of other backgrounds and beliefs. They are a recipe for future disaster. Children should not be educated separately in religious ghettos, 'thereby perpetuating the exclusivity and mistrust which must arise if people believe their religion is the only true one and everyone else is wrong' (AC Grayling The Guardian 24 February 2001).

By giving taxpayers' money to religious organisations which are themselves historically and theologically at odds, the government is actually reinforcing these divisions. 'The world's major religions - especially Christianity, Islam, and Judaism - are not merely incompatible with one another, but mutually antithetical. All religions are such that if they are pushed to their logical conclusions, or if their founding literatures and early traditions are accepted literally, they will take the form of their respective fundamentalisms ... The solution is to make the public domain wholly secular, leaving religion as a matter of private conviction' (AC Grayling The Observer 12 August 2001).

Taxpayers' money

All religious groups are minorities in this country - even the Church of England. Should taxpayers' money be used for minority religious purposes? And where does it end? Who decides which religions are worthy of state funding? Jehovah's Witnesses? The Mormons? Scientology? The Moonies?

Can it be right to force the majority of the population, who are 'opposed to superstitious beliefs and practices', to contribute against their will to the perpetuation of such things? Religion should be a matter of private conscience and choice, not something to be supported from public funds. 'If minorities wish to have their children taught in schools which premise belief in gods, astrology, space aliens or elves, they should pay for it themselves' (AC Grayling The Guardian 24 February 2001).

Parents' rights

In many parts of the country, especially in rural areas, a church school is the only realistic option for parents unable or unwilling to transport their children long distances to school. This is a real dilemma for parents who do not have religious beliefs. And then there are those who live in an area where the only decent school happens to be single-faith. Do they pretend to convictions they don't have - even if they find those convictions offensive - for the sake of their children's education? 'This is particularly disturbing for mothers who are aware of the impact of the Vatican's entrenched misogyny on their own lives and reluctant to expose their daughters to it.' This is discrimination against secular parents and their families. 'What makes it even more astonishing, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, is that it is being proposed by the state. The government has no business promoting religion' (Joan Smith The Guardian 28 February 2001).

Conclusions

Religion and politics

There has always been an uneasy mix of politics and religion in this country, centred around the monarchy and the establishment of the Church of England, with its bishops sitting in the House of Lords. Much has been written about whether Britain can now be described as a Christian country. Certainly, many of our institutions - including many of our schools - have their origins in, or are owned by, the churches. But for many years there has been an unspoken understanding that religion is a private matter, not something for the state to get involved in. 'In the cynical years that followed the war, most senior politicians followed Harold Macmillan's lead and left faith and morals to the bishops' (Roy Hattersley The Guardian 30 July 2001).

Not any more. Is it just because Tony Blair is a devout High Church Anglican? Nick Cohen (The Observer 7 October 2001) suggests that 'there is an enormous gap between Britain, which has lost its religions faster than any other country, and the British political class, which has become more ostentatiously godly with each new recruit to the Christian Socialist Movement and Conservative Christian Fellowship.'

Whatever the reasons, there is no doubt that religion has become an important ingredient in politics again. And nowhere is that ingredient more evident than in education policy.

It should not be so. There should be complete separation of religion and state. Recent events surely demonstrate the dangers inherent in this conflation of religion and politics. Religion causes political problems 'when devout Christians, Muslims or Jews think that it is their duty to translate specific beliefs into legislative form' (Roy Hattersley The Guardian 30 July 2001), and it harms society 'by causing conflicts, wars and persecutions, as everywhere evidenced by religious history including the present' (AC Grayling The Guardian 24 February 2001).

In the wake of the events of 11 September, Tony Blair appealed to all Britons to stand 'shoulder to shoulder' with America. But he seems to have forgotten that one of the best aspects of America is that enshrined in the First Amendment, which ensures that the state is separate from all religions. 'A British first amendment would support religious freedom by ... disestablishing the Church of England. It would remove unelected bishops from Parliament instead of chucking in token rabbis and mullahs. It would deal with the pro-Christian bias of the blasphemy law by abolishing it' (Nick Cohen The Observer 7 October 2001).

Religion and education

Religion and education are mutually incompatible. Indeed, religion is the antithesis of education, because it 'harms individuals by distorting human nature through repressive moralities and the inculcation of false beliefs, fears and hopes ... Children should emphatically not be taught as "facts" the myths and legends of ancient religious traditions: to do this to anyone unable to evaluate their credibility is a form of brainwashing or even abuse. Public funds should never be used to that end' (AC Grayling The Guardian 24 February 2001).

My advice to Blair, therefore is to close all faith schools (including independent schools) and reopen them as secular state-maintained schools; to ban religious education, except in the context of socio-historical studies; and to disestablish the Church of England and create a secular state in which the practice of religion is protected by law provided it is an entirely private matter.

I shan't be holding my breath. The chances of any British government, let alone Blair's, following such a radical course are pretty remote.

Robert, a nine-year old, goes to a Catholic school in Glasgow. Of the children at the nearby Protestant school, he says 'We call them Proddy dogs and they call us Fenians, and we fight them because we hate them and they hate us. Last winter they put glass in their snowballs' (quoted by Tracy McVeigh The Observer 30 September 2001).

References

Brooksbank K and Ackstine AE (1984) Educational administration Harlow: Councils and Education Press

Gibson I (1978) The English vice: beating, sex and shame in Victorian England and after London: Duckworth, quoted in J Paxman (1998) The English: a portrait of a people London: Penguin Books 209

Mackinnon D and Statham J (1999) Education in the UK: facts and figures (3rd edn) London: Hodder and Stoughton/Open University

Toynbee P (2001a) 'We don't need the church to educate our children' The Guardian 15 June

Toynbee P (2001b) 'Keep God out of class' The Guardian 9 November

Further reading

See my more recent article:

Gillard D (2007) Never Mind the Evidence: Blair's obsession with faith schools

  • This article was published in Forum 44(1) Spring 2002 15-22.