Sunday, June 15, 2008

How do we open up admissions to faith schools?

The following piece also appears on the Guardian's Comment is Free website.

The interim report by the schools adjudicator Philip Hunter into claims that faith schools have been breaking laws aimed at making admissions fairer is due with ministers next month. Ed Balls ordered the probe after the Department for Children, Schools and Families research revealed that a "significant number" of schools in three sample areas were breaking the statutory admissions code. Breaches included parents being asked for money and personal and financial details. There were also concerns that faith schools have not been taking enough children who are vulnerable including those with special needs and those eligible for free school meals.

I have no idea exactly what will be in Philip Hunter's interim report but here are three practical suggestions for reform:

1) Insist that all state funded voluntary aided (VA) schools set aside a minimum of 20% of its annual intake for the pupils of parents of other faiths or none.

2) Require all VA schools to publish their admission figures (criterion referenced) annually.

3) Require all VA schools to provide LAs with action plans (updated annually) as to how the school will actively seek to promote community cohesion.

At present, faith schools may select 100% of pupils from parents who share their faith. To be fair, most religious primary schools try to serve their local neighbourhood and often accept children of other faiths and of none. Like non-religious schools, many of them do a brilliant job and some do not. All religious secondary schools give some preference to children of their faith. Some try to be inclusive and accept a significant proportion of children from other faiths. Many do not.

I am firmly of the view that opening up faith schools to the pupils of parents of different faiths (or none) would be a positive move towards greater social and educational inclusion. A faith school that is true to its core values and principles will surely be one that seeks to be open and accessible to all pupils, one that would pay particular attention to the needs of the marginalised and the poor. The problem is that the forces of conservatism that dominate many faith groups are deeply resistant to change. For example, the Catholic Education Service (CES) has argued that it is spurious to suggest that removing the absolute right of a religious community to educate its own children by introducing a percentage non-faith quota for church schools would aid social cohesion. As someone whose teaching career was solely in the VA RC sector I would suggest that it is neither spurious nor indeed is it contrary to the mission of the church itself. Indeed I would go further and challenge the CES to publish a complete list of state funded Catholic schools (secondaries in particular) where it is already custom and practice that between 20%-30% of pupils come from other faith backgrounds or none.

The challenge to the various faith groups in Britain must centre on the type of educational provision they would be happy to support and indeed help shape in 21st century Britain. For me the only truly progressive, inclusive and comprehensive system would be one that intrinsically values and caters for all pupils regardless of their spiritual, economic or social capital? What we require is an education system in which every child is treasured, every child learns to value diversity and to appreciate the variety of contributions that each of them makes to our culture and where every child understands that he/she shares the potential and the frailty of the human condition.


Letters From A Tory said...

I have an idea - why don't we scrap faith schools and bring children up in a culture of inclusion, understanding and tolerance?

Anonymous said...

Although the churches always resist these reforms - they seem to have this idea that the schools "belong" to them - despite the interest of the tax payer who subsidises them and society as a whole.

But at the end of the day the prime function of these schools is to pass on the beliefs of a religion to children (used to be called indoctrination in old money). Consider this, if churches weren't allowed to promote their beliefs do you think they would bother getting involved....exactly. So they may have a slightly different intake but that just gives them opportunities to convert children from non-religious families or kids from other types of religious background.

This skirts around the central problem. Is it right that state schools should be allowed to prosleytise in favour of certain religious beliefs and discriminate against other beliefs and/or non-belief. Both in their teaching, their "ethos", and the manner in which they are allowed to discriminate in the employment of staff

Phil A said...

Indoctrinating children into a faith might be viewed as morally dubious in certain lights, possibly socially damaging. Never-the-less we as a society do accept people’s rights to pass on their beliefs to their children or ensure those beliefs are passed on.

The question we should be asking ourselves is should this process be subsidised with public money.

The response would probably be everyone contributes tax towards education. Everyone with children should be entitled to benefit from this.

Anonymous said...

Phil said: "The question we should be asking ourselves is should this process be subsidised with public money...The response would probably be everyone contributes tax towards education. Everyone with children should be entitled to benefit from this."

And exactly how does any small town, suburb or village provide enough school options to fit every single possible belief...all the varieties of christian and muslim, hindus, secularists, atheists, humanists, pagans etc....if they all have a "right" to a school funded by tax payers?

Yes parents have the right to communicate and attempt to pass on their personal beliefs to their children, but they can do it at home, it is not the job of the state.

Anonymous said...

How far should this right extend? I remember being worried when the Ismailia school opened back in the 1980s. I didn't know the term "madrassa" then, but that's what I thought it might be like. Now Buddhists want their own school in Birmingham. I've nothing against Buddhists at all (in fact it's the most gentle and sane of religions), but should fundamentalist Christian, Muslim or Hindu organisations be allowed their own schools?
Far better in my view to enforce a separation of church and state in this country. Parents already have the right to homeschool their children if they're that desperate to inculcate their offspring with their particular doctrines, and they can withdraw them from RE and PSHE classes if they don't like the content. RE classes should be about comparative religion, philosophy and ethics not "scripture", a place where students are introduced to alternative views and beliefs to their own, and forced to think about what they believe and why. To encourage schools that may try to prevent their students being exposed to alternative ideas would be pernicious and wrong.

Wolfie said...

All this pussy-footing about the real issues makes me sneer. For the most part these are tribalist schools, not religious schools. They are really in existence to serve an ethnic community and establish their values and continuing ethnic identity with the minimum of mixing with the greater community. The left like to play the fairness card (which is laudable) but then centre their attention on Catholic schools.

The day they [the left] start firing their attention at Jewish faith schools (who often insist on paternal/maternal tribal connection) I'll know that you actually mean business for once rather just trying once more to disassemble the future of the white middle-classes.

Personally I see no basis for such schools to exist.

Phil A said...

Maybe it would be better if the religious schools were not subsidised by the state at all.

Complete separation of the state from religion...

fake consultant said...

obama seems to support a greater taxpayer investment in us religious schools, and this conversation has been most helpful.