Saturday, 29 September 2012

Faith Schools - the Green position

“No publicly-funded school shall be run by a religious organisation. Schools may teach about religions, comparing examples which originated in each continent, but are prohibited from delivering religious instruction in any form or encouraging adherence to any particular religious belief.” (ED176 of the Green Party Policy Document)  http://policy.greenparty.org.uk/ed#Faith

Let me begin with my own experience. The event which made me aware of the vexed question of faith schools occurred when my daughter was eight years old. We had been living abroad for many years and had just got settled in Canterbury. I was more than a little dismayed to be asked one day by the well-meaning mother of one of my daughter’s schoolfriends whether I was going to go to the local Anglican church or the Catholic one. I reflected that the English must have changed a lot during my stay abroad because religion had always been a taboo subject in polite playground conversation, but replied that, though I was baptised into the Church of England, I had been a freethinker since my late teens. My companion laughed and said that she herself was, of course, not religious, but it was a question of being in the selection for one of the faith schools in Canterbury − no one wanted their child to go to Canterbury High. (This is eighteen years ago when the only non-selective school in the city had a bad reputation.)  She said parents needed to think ahead and start attending the appropriate church a couple of years ahead of their children starting secondary school, as this was the only way of being considered for a faith school.

After a discussion with my daughter, we decided to stick to our principles and hope she would pass the Kent Test at age eleven, leading to a place at a grammar school. Green Party opposition to grammar schools is a topic for another day. Suffice it to say here that currently we all still have to operate within this system in Kent. To their credit, my daughter’s primary school did not “teach to the test”, and we had no money to pay for private tutors, so it was a risk many loving parents would not have taken. We were lucky; after taking the Kent Test and recourse to her previous schoolwork, my daughter was accepted at a grammar school. But that conversation about faith schools was a turning-point for me.
The English have long been characterised as hypocrites by Continentals. I suppose it all started with our Good Queen Bess saying she had “no desire to make windows into men's souls”. I live on Martyrs Field Road so I am daily reminded of what happened when people openly professed a belief contrary to that of the state in those times: the monument down the road commemorates the forty-one men and women who were burned at the stake in that place between 1555 and 1558. Today, of course, freedom of religion and belief is one of the central rights set out in international human rights treaties; yet it has also been one of the most controversial, especially in the field of education, and the question of parents attending a place of worship simply to get their child into a faith school in the UK is a case in point. It must be a terrible thing to live as a hypocrite, to pretend to believe something you actually consider false, and to go through the motions of upholding it. It is what religious people would call “soul-destroying” − we all know the feeling. It is one of being dishonest and cowardly, and it ultimately leads to a significant loss of self-esteem. Yet this is precisely what parents must endure, it seems, if they want the best for their child.

When I found out the reality of admission to faith schools all those years ago I decided to do something to help bring about a change. A colleague told me about the National Secular Society, whose stated aim is to challenge religious privilege. I joined and discovered that faith schools are entirely funded by the state; yet they have the right to select students according to their parents’ professed beliefs. This selection often leads to their having better results than the community schools, since the parents involved generally take a great interest in their children’s schooling and provide all kinds of help, whereas the community schools are left with the unselected students, often those from a disadvantaged background, where parents may have little or no engagement in their children’s education.

Faith schools have proliferated over the years because of this belief that they are “better”; they now also represent a much wider range of religions. If anyone is in any doubt about the wisdom of segregating children according to religion, they need only look to Northern Ireland, where the dark prejudice and hatred between the different faith communities has been perpetuated through separate schooling. Moreover, research has shown conclusively that those who are educated in faith schools are much less open-minded and far more prone to bigotry than those schooled in a community setting.

The Green Party has the slogan “Fair is worth fighting for”, and it applies this principle to every aspect of society. It is not only unfair that a school funded by the taxpayer should select its students according to parents’ attendance at a place of worship, it is also repugnant that many caring parents are induced by this system to compromise their own often hard-won philosophy of life and resort to hypocrisy with all the psychological harm it entails.