So-called "faith schools" can take many forms - some seemingly benign, some less so. To any parent looking to secure a decent education and future prospects for their child, these schools may appear to offer better results than more secular educational institutions. Here in the UK, the church-funded Roman Catholic and Church of England schools are often referred to as "the poor man's private school." It is widely assumed that “faith schools" are a good thing.
I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that faith schools are in fact a bad thing, and that sending your child to such a school can even, in some cases, be characterised as a form of child abuse. I will set out my reasons for saying so, and let you decide whether you're going to answer my call to action, or ignore it.
Parents have an explicit right in the European Convention of Human Rights to bring up their children in the religion or belief of their choice, without illegitimate interference from the state. However, they do not have a right to state funding for religious teaching, nor do they have any right to funding for faith schools that are in line with their own beliefs. Yet state-funded religious schools can be found all over Europe and the UK - and in many other countries, such as the United States of America. Such schools have been in existence for a long, long time - but why do we keep seeing more and more of them?
Perhaps because they are quite good at their own PR. The UK Government green paper Schools Building on Success (2001) welcomed Church of England proposals at that time for opening more than 100 extra church secondary schools because “they have a good record of delivering a high quality of education”. Since then the Government has encouraged and funded more schools run by religious groups on the grounds of allegedly increasing parental choice and supposedly fostering diversity in education.
And there is no denying that students do generally achieve very good academic results at these schools. But the logic is faulty.
Any selective school can achieve better than average results, and faith schools are very selective indeed: They take a less than representative sample of deprived children, and very deliberately but covertly select the children of ambitious middle-class parents. This "secret selection" goes a very long way towards explaining their apparent academic success. If we want socially or academically selective education (with the disadvantaged “left-over” schools that will inevitably accompany that selectivity), we should have an open and honest debate about it, not bring it in by stealth (and in a way that benefits only religious minorities).
The proliferation of state-funded religious schools all over the world is making for a more segregated future, particularly as religions whose believers tend to come from particular state-favoured ethnic groups gain more state-funded schools. When studies show that religious selection for pupils also results in socio-economic selection, the case against religious schools starts to get stronger.
As a white Afrikaner child growing up in the 70's and 80's in South Africa, my society was about as segregated under Apartheid as you could possibly imagine. But it was not only segregated by race, but also by religion, and state-funded Christian schools were the only choice for my parents back then. As I matured and began to question the state-sanctioned suppression of black and Asian people (who couldn't even vote for change, despite being the overwhelming majority in my country), and as I began to question the religious tenets under which I was raised, I saw first-hand some of the real harms that result from such segregation.
On a more basic educational level, faith schools are also about the triumph of myth over reality, and the triumph of authority over reason. if we are to raise children who value facts over nonsense, who can think critically and participate fully in political life, then we cannot afford to have schools teaching creationism or intelligent design as scientific theories, because they simply aren't science at all.
Here, I will focus my attention on the two faiths that are responsible, between them, for the opening and ongoing maintenance of most of the world's faith schools: Christianity and Islam.
In the UK, the Archbishops’ Council report The Way ahead: Church of England schools in the new Millennium (2001) claimed a "crucial importance of the Church schools to the whole mission of the Church to children and young people, and indeed to the long-term well-being of the Church of England”. It recommended reserving places for Christians and that Church schools should become more “distinctively Christian”, with a mission to “...nourish those of the faith; encourage those of other faiths; challenge those who have no faith.” In other words, atheists are not welcome here.
When less than 5% of adults in England go to church on an average Sunday, it is simply utter nonsense to claim that Christian schools "serve the whole community" as I'm often told. Nor do they respect the autonomy of children in the vital matter of choosing their own moral pathways, especially if those pathways are non-religious. A disturbing number of Christians seem unable to grasp or accept the idea that recognising right from wrong and living a moral life does not require religion at all - it merely requires empathy.
It is undisputed that education in Christian schools is not as broad-based and multi-faith as it is in the more secular community schools, and faith schools discriminate against everyone not of their faith – in their admissions and employment policies, the subjects they teach and how they teach them, even in their assumptions about the world-views of people who don't share their religious views.
Some faith schools will not even try to serve the whole community, and will divide children not just by religion but also ethnically - places like Myanmar and Northern Ireland are clear examples of what happens to a society when children are educated separately and grow up knowing little of each other's cultures and faiths.
Even when we make progress, we seem unable to resist pandering to religious groups. For example, this year (2020) has seen relationships and sex education (RSE) become compulsory in England and Wales in all schools. But the Government has left loopholes in the law which permit schools to teach RSE in line with the religious backgrounds of their pupils. Certain content – if it is covered at all – may therefore continue to be taught in ways that are racist, homophobic, misogynist, or otherwise violate basic principles of human rights.
Some faith schools teach abstinence-only sex education, instead of teaching about contraception and abortion, thereby risking the future health and mental well-being of the children. Many Christian schools also don't approve of inclusive relationships education that recognises same-sex families.
But it's not just Christian schools that abuse children in this insidious, covert manner.
There is also a darker side to faith schools, with Islamic faith schools in particular recently hitting the news headlines in the UK when it was discovered that many are illegal, that they teach Sharia law, that they are radicalising children, and that Muslim girls are being denied the same level of education as their male counterparts. It is time we expose these illegal faith schools to the light.
A significant number of unregistered, illegal faith schools are operating throughout Europe and the UK. Most of them are Muslim schools, and all of them are fundamentalist, extreme, or isolationist in their outlook. It is for this reason that Muslim religious leaders in these communities see illegal schools as preferable to registered ones, which face inspection and must meet a variety of minimum standards.
In 2019, it was revealed that close to 6,000 pupils are being sent to illegal schools in the UK alone, and the so-called "education" provided in these schools is narrow-minded, predominantly scriptural in its content, deeply conservative, intolerant, and extremist.
In 2016, the findings of UK education authority inspectors who managed to visit a number of unregistered Muslim schools included ‘a narrow Islamic-focused curriculum’, ‘inappropriate books and other texts including misogynistic, homophobic and anti-Semitic material’, and ‘children at significant risk of harm and indoctrination’.
That, folks, is child abuse. And in my opinion, so is the less overt but equally harmful curriculum taught in legal, state-funded Christian schools.
So this is my call to action: I am a member of Humanists UK which is currently fundraising to keep a dedicated campaigner against faith schools and religious education employed. Please help by donating at our crowdfunding page.
You can also support Humanists UK by becoming a member. That helps in itself, and you can help even more by supporting our campaigns in the ways suggested above. But campaigns also cost money – quite a lot of money – and we also need financial support. You can make a donation to Humanists UK.