Non-Sikhs can apply

Not every faith school is exclusive to its brethren. Luis Domingues reports

If you're thinking of working in a faith school in your induction year, or just contemplating a change in career direction to any kind of religious school, read on.

Angel Meacham, dismissed from her job as a teacher in Cleveland, USA, in 2002, took her former Catholic school employers to court for the termination of her contract.

The reason the school gave for sacking her?

She'd married in a Presbyterian church. As far as her diocese was concerned, this constituted a "grave offence against Catholic doctrine and morality", despite Mrs Meacham, a divorcee, having worked for the diocese for 17 years.

Only in America, you might think. Not really. In January this year plans for seven proposed mixed-faith schools in Lanarkshire, Scotland, were jeopardised by religious officials from one of the faiths involved demanding separate entrances, staff toilets and nurseries at the shared sites for their staff to protect their spiritual wellbeing. How wonderful it is to see religious leaders embracing inclusivity.

Blinkered, maybe. Dogmatic, perhaps. But these and other stories that have surfaced over the years have fuelled the arguments over the values and merits of faith schools.

But what does all this mean to teachers? Well, it could mean a great deal; after all, faith schools are, and always will be, a hot political topic.

The 2001 race riots in Bradford and Burnley were partly attributed (by the subsequent Cantle report) to segregated religious schooling.

Apparently 80 per cent of us want fewer faith schools, yet they invariably find their application levels rising year on year, with waiting lists of anxious parents hoping to share a slice of their success.

This gives rise to accusations of selectivity, lack of inclusion, and indoctrination, from critics such as the New Humanist Association and non-denominational educationists.

Of course, many teachers couldn't care less about the politics, only the teaching. Although day-to-day teaching and learning in faith schools in the state sector may be influenced by the religion of that school, success in applying for such posts is still quite often conditional on professing that faith. Furthermore, in the independent sector, your chances of employment can be even slimmer if you have the wrong religion.

However, there are some schools aiming to buck the trend. The Guru Nanak Sikh school in Hayes, Middlesex, is one single-faith school planning to be more inclusive. Insular and selective, it isn't. Although the majority of the intake is Sikh, it is not exclusively so; the only important criterion is that children and parents have respect for the Sikh faith. The schools enrols non-Sikh pupils - this year's head girl is Muslim - and more moves are afoot to broaden the inclusion further.

Neither do they select on academic ability. They take mixed abilities and genders and work to improve them all. They tackle personal, health and social education head on: drugs, sex and arranged marriages, warts and all.

As a beacon school they run joint projects with other local non-denominational schools. They currently lie eighth in the country on GCSE results among state schools, but it's not down to bucketfuls of extra money from local Sikhs either; they have well over the national average of pupils receiving free school meals, and Hayes is no rich man's playground.

But most impressive is their commitment to a mixed, non-denominational teaching base. The principal, Rajinder Sandhu, explained that their primary aim in recruitment is to appoint the best applicant for the post rather than adopt a Sikh-only employment policy. "The only thing we require is that people come here respecting the tenets of the faith, and if they can do that, then they find that Sikhs are very inclusive. And if they didn't, what kind of role models would they be anyway?"

I had a meeting arranged with a newly qualified teacher at the school, Madhvi Haria, a biology teacher. When I asked Greg Hall, the assistant principal, what faith, if any, Ms Haria belonged to, he was momentarily nonplussed.

"I actually don't know. But it's not that important to us. What is important is that she's a great science teacher," he said.

When I asked some of the students, they agreed that quality of teaching came first. Which god the staff prayed to came a distant second.

I asked Ms Haria what it was like working at a faith school such as Guru Nanak.

"I don't give as many detentions as I did at my previous school, and not for the same level of disruption, either."

So are the students better behaved?

"Part of the Sikh religion is an adherence to seva, which means unselfishness. It makes the pupils more humble, positive and honest."

And is it compulsory to take part in the religious life of the school? "No, we are free to volunteer for the Sikh festivals, and the students arrange their own assemblies. But we are in the religious life of the school anyway, because there is a common thread among the kids, and that is their spirituality."

Incidentally, Ms Haria is Hindu. I asked her if she'd had any worries before joining Guru Nanak, especially over parental reaction to her personal beliefs. "I find the parents very open and questioning, actually.

In fact, during one open evening, some of my students were dissecting an animal heart as a demonstration, and I was thinking: 'Should I be doing this? Am I allowed?' (Sikhs believe in non-violence towards any animal and are strictly vegetarian.) "But the parents were fascinated. I think they were just pleased that their children were receiving a full education," she says.


"The Catholic School is not in existence to serve Catholic needs and to throw around itself a protective shield but exists to encourage and enable students to become active citizens contributing to the common good of society." Bishop Declan LangFebruary 2003 "What is wrong with allowing parents to choose a school for their child that teaches the parents' religious belief? At first sight this sounds quite innocent, apart from the fact that it is the parents' religious belief, not the child's."

Professor David Colquhoun FRS, Humanist Scientists Group


Numbers of denominational schools in the UK(Figures for independent schools in brackets)*

Jewish: 38 (5)

Muslim: 44 (41)

C of E:4843 (157)

Roman Catholic: 3154 (30)

RCC of E:11 (0)

Methodist: 47 (18)

Greek Orthodox: 2 (0)

Sikh: 2 (0)

Presbyterian: 3 (3)

Christian: 80 (40)

Church of Ireland: 3 (1)

Church of Scotland: 2 (1)

Church of Wales: 7 (2)

Quaker: 14 (9)

C of E Christian: 11 (9)

C of E Free Church: 1 (0)

C of E Methodist: 28 (0)

C of EURC: 2(0)

Congregational Churc h: 1 (0)

Episcopalian: 5 (0)

Free Church: 1 (0)

Free Presbyterian: 6 (6)

Independent Pentecostal: 1 (1)

Seventh Day Adventist: 1 (0)

United Reformed Church: 1 (0)

Integrated (Northern Ireland cross-community): 30 (1)

Christian Inter-Denominational: 35 (33)

None: 316 (8)

Unknown: 3305 (61)

Non-denom: 20130 (229)

* Figures supplied by the Good Schools Guide website

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