Are faith schools a much needed bastion of organised religion in an increasingly secular society, or a relic of a bygone and outdated religious one? There is hardly a more divisive issue: those ‘with a religious character’ make up around one third of the primary schools in England and Wales, and upwards of 98 per cent of these are Church of England or Roman Catholic. When only 7.4 per cent of adults attend Christian services, is this really representative?
Faith schools are divided into two camps: those who are selective based on faith and those who admit anyone while maintaining a wider religious ‘ethos’. Schools which require a pupil to follow its religion in order to gain a place are some of the most discriminatory in terms of socio-economic status in the country. Even the authors of More Than An Educated Guess, a report written for religious think tank Theos, admit that faith schools “can disadvantage the less well off”. The British Humanist Association conducted research on the proportion of pupils receiving free schools meals in comparison to the economic status of children in the catchment area of that school, and found that 18 of the top 20 worst comprehensives for socio-economic discrimination are faith schools, making up 69 per cent of the top 100. When only 16 per cent of schools discriminate based on religion, this is a shocking figure. It is not necessarily the case that faith schools are seeking well-off students; it may be down to a number of factors, such as better off parents being able to attend church more regularly, or having the money to send children further away from home without concern for travel or childcare costs.
The upshot of this trend of affluent parents gaining sought after school spaces is that less well off children, especially in larger cities, often have to travel huge distances in order to get to a school that will give them a place. This distorts their development, with children often living nowhere near their friends and being incapable of getting themselves to school without supervision. In turn, the children that get into religious schools may only get to socialise with children of a similar religious and economic background to themselves, which can’t be good preparation for the melting pot of future settings. It assumes that children will follow the religion that their parents do, robbing them of the opportunity to learn tolerance and compassion by meeting people from many different backgrounds.
Furthermore, faith schools often fail to address the needs of students in a modern age. While now required to teach PHSE, including sex education, they are legally allowed to teach it with a religious bent. In 2010, Michael Gove announced that the Equality Act did not extend to the content of faith curricula, allowing schools such as Lancashire’s Roman Catholic primaries to go unpunished for teaching that “the homosexual act is disordered, much like contraceptive sex between heterosexuals” and that homosexuality may “stem from a unhealthy relationship with the father, an inability to relate to other guys, or even sexual abuse”. Religious expression is one thing, but teaching outright homophobia to children, some of whom may be struggling with their sexuality themselves, is an outrage.
Faith schools segregate children based on parental beliefs, teach damaging ethics and disadvantage non-religious and poorer children. The practice of allowing schools to select based on religion must be ended if we are to achieve a truly equal and secular society.