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The myth of why ‘faith’ schools work

The Trojan Horse scandal only emphasised how neither side of the debate is telling the whole truth

By on Thursday, 17 July 2014

Benedict XVI meets school children during a celebration of Catholic education in 2010. It remains popular among parents, if not voters           (PA)

Benedict XVI meets school children during a celebration of Catholic education in 2010. It remains popular among parents, if not voters (PA)

There is probably no more weaselish phrase in politics than “Faith schools”: the term covers everything from Church of England village primary schools to dedicated Muslim academies where the girls are all taught in headscarves. So it shouldn’t be surprising that almost everyone who uses the term does so dishonestly.

In the wake of the Trojan Horse scandal, it’s worth revisiting a comprehensive study by Professor Linda Woodhead which shows that almost all the political positions associated with these schools are based on profound misunderstanding of public attitudes. Based on a poll of 4,018 respondents conducted by YouGov last summer, it offers a brutal reality check for Humanists, churches and politicians of all sorts.

The abolition of faith schools is a favourite cause of the British Humanist Association – in fact it is the only one of their causes to approach the popularity of assisted suicide. It is also backed by a variety of small religious groups, both Jewish and Christian. The Church of England, which maintains the overwhelming majority, has no idea of what to do with them, while the Catholic Church gets itself into appalling tangles where schools – most recently the London Oratory – are denounced by their own church as well as by the Humanists for discrimination in admissions policy.

Broadly speaking, the Left opposes faith schools and the Right is in favour. But this is true only at the level of official spokespeak. The attitudes of voters are much more complicated, and bring no comfort to either side. In particular, the strongest opposition is found among the middle aged and the weakest among young people. Voting intentions make little difference. This ought to make no sense. It is an article of faith on the Left that faith schools are wicked because they promote social segregation. It is an article of faith on the Right that faith schools teach morality in a way the secular schools just can’t. It’s quite clear from the survey that both positions are nonsense. In so far as there is an underlying dynamic, it is the pressure of parental anxiety in a school system where the penalties for failure are increasingly frightening.

The only way to make sense of these results is to understand that “faith”, as it is understood in contemporary politics, is a confusing nonsense. What people have opinions about are particular religions, and to some extent beliefs. What they want is to get the best possible education for their children.

Even among devout believers, those who attend religious services once a week or more, “academic standards” are far more important as a reason to choose a school than “grounding in a faith tradition” or “transmission of belief about God”. And the fervently devout are a minority of the population: six per cent of British adults attend services once a week or more often. Private devotion is much more widespread: 20 per cent of the population has prayed in the last month, but only in private. Those statistics are worth remembering when faith schools are accused of “indoctrinating” children: the one thing they very clearly cannot do is to transmit the faith that they are supposed to do. This is an illustration of the second great truth that the survey brings out: the British public now believes that religion – all organised religion – is weird. There is a majority against the government funding any faith schools at all, even after it has been explained that these make up a third of the school system – although more than one in five “don’t know”.

Muslims schools are, of course, thoroughly unpopular, with 60 per cent of those asked opposed to state funding, compared to nearer 40 per cent opposed for Christian denominations. Here again young people are less opposed than their parents and grandparents.

The point on which faith schools are most often attacked is the claim that they discriminate between applicants on the grounds of religious belief, which state funded institutions should not do. There is a separate argument against minority faith schools, that they prevent integration and this is not just confined to non-Muslims worrying about Muslims (I know some Jewish campaigners are opposed to Jewish schools on those grounds). But both these arguments ignore the underlying dynamic, which is that faith schools are able to discriminate only when they are oversubscribed, and schools are oversubscribed simply because they are seen as much better than the local competition.

Faith, in this instance, becomes a proxy for the things that parents really care about, which the YouGov poll shows very clearly are discipline and academic standards. The normal process of selection for the state system is by house prices (which are greatly influenced by school catchment areas) and no one seems to find this odd. It’s taken for granted that families will move to come into reach of good schools for their children if they cannot afford private education. Why should attending church be so much more of a sacrifice?

Catholic schools, especially, attempt to select by church attendance as a deliberate counterweight to this tendency, so that the children of poor but devout parents get the advantages of richer ones. This is hugely unpopular with the laity, especially in London. That’s why there have been parental revolts at the most oversubscribed London schools. But it shows how egalitarian arguments and secular ones can end up in conflict with each other. The dynamic driving the growth of faith schools is competition and parental choice. Both of these are popular policies, and no government has ever really stood up to the churches over faith schooling.

But this process has little to comfort social conservatives – and, in general, this still looks like a nostalgic and reactionary country, except in matters of sexual morality. Fifty-one per cent of us think “British society has become worse” since 1945, and only 27 per cent think it has improved. Parental choice drives social differentiation. That’s why the Left dislikes it. But it will also drive segregation in schooling, as it already does in housing. This is something the Right will dislike too. But it’s too late to stop now.

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