Faith schools have taken quite a battering in the last few years. The charges against them are varied: there’s the indoctrination argument, the social segregation argument, the unfair admissions argument and the neutral public space argument, thinly disguised as a legal wrangle about admissions protocols. Ofsted has waded in with its wildly enthusiastic rooting out of homophobia in faith schools then, following the public outcry that resulted, making a subtle shift in approach by taking the standards of English teaching as a route into enforcing conformity.
Despite all of this, faith schools, it seems, will remain part of the fabric of our education provision. The meddling with admissions procedures will continue and no doubt the National Secular Society will continue to oppose any expression of faith in the public square, but faith schools remain enduringly popular with parents. This week, however, a couple of new issues arose, which might change public perceptions.
Firstly, the Church of England seems to have started attacking itself from the inside. Martin Hislop, vicar of St Luke’s in Kingston on Thames, is reported to be dropping church attendance as a criteria for admission to St Luke’s Primary School on the grounds that he feels ‘uncomfortable’ about accusations of parental gaming and that the need to record church attendance did not contribute to a ‘positive and affirming atmosphere’ in the parish. Doubtless parents do game the system in a range of subtle ways and not just for church school admissions – moving house into the catchment area of a good school is reasonably common and the use of a family member’s address for those outside of the catchment area isn’t unknown.
What the Vicar’s decision will do is trigger a price war on houses in the school catchment area which will probably secure the very demographic that critics of faith schools abhor. It will almost certainly discriminate against less affluent families and narrow the intake, so parents will still game the system, just by another method, I guess it will, at least, release them from unwilling church attendance.
This move is part of a growing trend in the Church of England – a group of clergy even published a letter earlier this month urging open admissions. In principle the idea may well be defendable, but it also raises the issue of those Christian parents who choose a church school for its faith ethos, not for the quality of its education. Why should families who genuinely worship in their local parish church, who commit time, money and energy to its work and who do so because they love God and not to game the system, be barred from their children attending that church’s school?
This issue was further complicated this week by the news that due to the shortage of school places, 20 families have been given places at a Sikh faith ethos school that they didn’t request. It’s an issue which I touched on in an earlier blog, and one which has been brought into sharp focus by the reactions of one particular parent. He said: ‘We strongly believe in education being secular and not based on any one faith – and we expressly stated in our original application that we wanted a non-religiously affiliated education for our daughter.’ They had deliberately not applied for their nearest school because it was Church of England.
So what happens when parents find themselves in this position? Human rights treaties give parents and guardians the right to educate their children in accordance with their religious faith and their morals and that is true for atheist and secular parents just as it is true for parents of faith. What education managers and politicians seem not to understand is the distinctiveness of faith ethos schools. Just as one example given by a parent delegated to a Sikh ethos school: will the school include meat on the school dinners menu, when Sikh ethos is strictly vegetarian? Will children be allowed meat or fish in their lunchboxes if this is against school principles? And although RE teaches about a range of faiths, each day starts with Sikh prayers. Parents have the right to opt their children out of these, but what will the social effect be? And how can they become integrated into a community when they are opted out of parts of each day?
So what is the future for faith schools? If faith education is to mean anything, it must mean distinctiveness within each faith. To do otherwise is to reduce faith education to nothing more than a caring school where moral standards are nurtured and a holistic approach defines the school ethos. There are many schools like this with no faith ethos, so what would be the difference?
Church of England, Catholic and Jewish schools have a longer tradition of education than the state, but Muslim, Hindu and Sikh schools are the new kids on the block and their entry raises questions about how we define faith education and who can, and can’t, access it. It also leaves unanswered the question of compulsion and whether parents can be forced to absorb spare capacity in schools which contradict the beliefs with which they choose to raise their children. Maybe this will be the next debate surrounding the continued functioning of faith schools …