Richard Dawkins: Faith School Menace posed fundamental and, in the light of the government’s latest academy push, timely, questions. Why do we have faith schools? What are faith schools for? Is there an alternative?
A biased summary of the programme, with some added thoughts, for those who missed it.
First – the facts. One third of schools in this country are now faith based. The system was initially established sixty years ago, and at that time the churches (for they were all Chrisitian) provided half the running costs. Part of the deal was that they could teach RE in their own way – (half) the piper, not entirely unreasonably, got to call the tune. I’d be interested to see some research on how many parents believe this is still the arrangement – most I have, completely randomly in a non-representative poll, spoken to, certainly seem to think the religious institution makes a substantial financial contribution so it is only ‘right’ they should have that leniency. But that’s simply not true any more. Faith schools are funded in the same way as other state schools, and even new faith school buildings are up to 90% taxpayer funded. But the old privileges of discrimination on the basis of religion for employment and admissions continues legally, along with the ability to opt out of the National Curriculum for RE and teach in line with religious preferences.
Dawkins raised the issue of the validating of faith schools when Charles Clarke allowed non-Christian faith schools to be established, along with the first wave of academies. Clarke defended the decision initially on the basis of discrimination – if we have Christian schools then it is only right that in modern Britain we have Muslim and Jewish schools too. Dawkins suggested the opposite could have been done – removing the funding to ALL faith schools to level the playing field. Clarke replied that this would effectively lead to the closure of 4000 schools, against voters’ wishes (political suicide).
But of course it wouldn’t. It would only lead to closure if the schools valued their faith status more than their responsibility to educate the children. If they wanted to maintain their funding they would just have to teach National Curriculum based RE and stop discriminating. The assumption was however that this would not be acceptable to . . . who? Parents? Staff? Just asking.
The point was then raised that in a country where 7% of the population attend religious worship on a weekly basis, 36% of children attend faith schools. Does this really represent the population? Of course the answer is no – and Dawkins interviewed parents who recounted their desperate attempts to increase their child’s eligibility to the local church school by converting to Catholicism, attending the church every Sunday for 4 years, being nice to the priest, but buckling when a £5000 sweetener was suggested. This is not remotely unique – my neighbours have done at least parts of this (successfully too – their kid gets free education at the local Catholic school).
And why are non-religious and not-that-religious-really-but-I’m-prepared-to-overlook-that-minor-detail parents fighting to get their kids in to faith schools? Presumably because two thirds of all primaries with 100% scores for SATs are faith ones. It was suggested by Dr Steve Gibbons of the LSE that this is not due to any added value the schools pass on, kids from similar backgrounds and areas at other schools do just as well – but it is the background itself, for example the value those parents put on fighting for their kids’ education, that makes the difference.
So Dawkins went through the motions of being impartial to try and find out what faith schools do offer. No, he didn’t really, only joking. But he did ask the question to others. The Chief Education Officer of the Church of England, Rev Janina Ainsworth, said that faith schools want to impart that faith matters, but more than that, to give some personal experience of faith so that children can make an informed decision. Dawkins countered that this was targeting young children precisely because they are impressionable.
But who really knows what is going on inside faith schools, given that their RE lessons are exempt from Ofsted inspection and many choose to teach areas such as sex education & some citizenship through RE, whereas these would be covered in other parts of the curriculum in a mainstream school. The case was given of a Jewish school which had eight hours of RE over a fortnight – more than any other secular subject. Eight hours! Regulate the RE and you would regulate much of the bias across the currciculum.
Dawkins visited a Muslim school to try and see how the perceived conflict between religion and science could be resolved. I teach them evolution and then tell them the Qu’ran says it’s wrong and they all independently decide, from their own free will, without exception, to agree with me said the science teacher. . . ish. Show me how you answer the question a girl asked re why there are still chimpanzees if we are evolved from them. ‘Errr’ she replied. (22.40 for 1 minute in the programme). I think that most people will have been most alarmed not at the Muslim bias, but at the willful lack of subject knowledge from a so-called subject specialist. It was . . . well . . . alarming.
Point made, Dawkins moved on to the cultural arguments regarding parents’ rights to bring their children up in line with their own beliefs and community (their community not the broader one) cohesion. To Northern Ireland then, where the Good Friday Agreement kept its hands off education and 95% of children continue to grow up in segregated faith schools. Both Catholic and Protestant education leaders saw this as a good, non-divisive thing. But Donal Flanagan, Chief Executive of the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools actually fought back (34.07) – he argued that Dawkins is as guilty of trying to impose his values of children in a secular school encouraging critical thinking, as a Catholic school is of spreading their doctrine – why should only he have the right to choose?
But parents are not prevented from indoctrinating their children. That’s what home, conversations with your children, church/mosque etc, Sunday School is for. The right of the religious to get a public subsidy for their form of indoctrination, and be allowed to discriminate while their at it, is deemed to be special. My choice of school for my kids? Special measures or private. My neighbours? Special measures, private or one of two Catholic state schools in the area.
Removing the rights from parents to choose a religious school is not the same as removing the right to bring up your child in a religious home and community with religious values. And at what point do we say that children matter more than parental choice? Before we get to a parent’s choice to mutilate their children with female circumcision? Cultural, religious parental choice is not always in the best interests of our children or our society.
So Dawkins presented his vision, outlined in greater detail in some of the pre-publicity for this film, regarding his desire to see ALL schools offer an education in critical thinking, questioning, a desire for evidence and reason.
And secularists will have watched, and wondered how Dawkins kept so outwardly calm throughout while they shouted at the TV, And supporters of faith schools will also have shouted at the TV. And the current drive for increased parental choice will continue to deny me a real choice for my children.