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Rise of faith schools will deeply divide our society

In opening the floodgates on a new wave of religious education, ministers ignore the fact that we live in an increasingly secular nation, writes one campaigner

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In opening the floodgates on a new wave of religious education, ministers ignore the fact that we live in an increasingly secular nation, writes one campaigner

In recent weeks both the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the director of the Catholic Education Service, Paul Barber, have set out their plans in TES to extend their organisations’ reach in education.

It seems somewhat incongruous that in one of the world’s most secularised countries, these Churches still oversee the education of almost 2 million children.

The Church of England plans to run a quarter of the 500 free schools that the government aims to open before 2020, while the Catholic Education Service has successfully lobbied the government to lift the 50 per cent faith-based admissions cap, and plans to open 30 to 40 new 100 per cent religiously selective schools.

The Church of England is already the biggest sponsor of academies in England, posing a number of questions; not least about the wisdom of handing over vast swathes of publicly funded education to a religious institution seemingly in terminal decline.

Anglican church attendance has halved over the past 35 years, and one has to wonder just how sustainable the Church’s plans are, particularly when all of the evidence suggests that the reduction in Christian affiliation and increase in non-belief is set to continue.

To what extent should the state bankroll the church in its mission?

With the Church’s demographic time-bomb in mind, it’s not hard to see why the CofE puts schools at “the very centre of its mission”. A report from the Church’s Evangelism Task Group in 2015 stressed an “urgent need to focus on children, young people and their parents” and highlighted the “challenge the Church faces in reaching younger people with the good news of the Gospel”.

Faced with dwindling congregations and almost the disappearance of Sunday schools, state schools are the Church’s best hope of securing the next generation of believers. Put simply, church schools, paid for by the state, are vital to its survival, certainly as the established Church. To what extent should the state, through the education system, bankroll the Church in its mission?

It is more than 70 years since the Church-state settlement of our modern education system – the “Butler” Act of 1944. Since then, Britain’s religion and belief landscape has changed out of all recognition. The time has come for a new settlement recognising the much less religious country that we have become, and the need we have to nurture social cohesion in a multi-religious society. The response should not be more faith-based schools, as Archbishop Welby and Mr Barber are bidding for, but an insistence on truly inclusive secular schools in which children of all faith backgrounds are educated together.

Risk of discrimination

The government’s plan to give the green light to a new generation of religiously selective schools is particularly pernicious. Mr Barber is on record as saying that total religious segregation in schools is “dreadful”, yet he heads the principal organisation advocating for such segregation.

It’s clear that the insistence of the CES that new faith schools must be free to select entirely on the basis of religion will only exacerbate levels of discrimination and segregation across state schools.

Mr Barber has made it clear that pupils of “other faiths” would be welcome in Catholic schools – provided, it would seem, that they can’t fill them with Catholic children first. Schools organised around religious identities will inevitably have limited appeal for those who don’t share that faith. If Mr Barber truly does want to see an end to religiously segregated schools, he would do well to recognise the inherent divisiveness of faith schools and campaign instead for a secular education system that rightly regards religious inculcation as a private matter for families – and not the business of the state.

But the legacy of the Butler Act lingers on, and the continuing presence of faith-based schools means that we are now in the farcical situation where there are more pupils worshipping in CofE schools every day than there are Anglicans worshipping in their pews on any given Sunday.

Mindful of widespread concern over the divisiveness of “faith” schools, the CofE reacted to the government’s proposal to extend religious selection by reassuring the nation that “our schools are not faith schools for the faithful, they are Church schools for the community”. But in its latest report setting out its vision for education, the CofE reaffirms its commitment to offering pupils “an encounter with Jesus Christ and with Christian faith and practice”. But it’s more than just “an encounter”. Concerned governors contacting the National Secular Society warn that church schools are increasingly finding themselves under pressure to push the Christian message.

‘State-backed evangelism’

Should evangelism really be a strategic objective of a publicly funded 21st-century education system? Surely education should open young minds, not indoctrinate them. The religious freedoms of young people shouldn’t be a secondary consideration.

As the daughter of a vicar, Theresa May’s enthusiasm for faith schools should perhaps come as no surprise. But her talk of faith schools offering greater parental choice is a red herring. A proliferation of faith schools limits choice for parents who don’t want a faith-based education. We need more good schools, but polling shows that parents do not specifically want faith schools. Academic standards, location, discipline and ethical values far outweigh faith-related reasons for choosing schools. Just 5 per cent of parents would choose a school on the basis of it giving a “grounding in faith tradition”.

When opting for church schools, most parents are simply tolerating the religious bit – in part because church schools are perceived to be academically superior. But where church schools do achieve marginally better results, it is usually down to faith-based selection which, as the evidence shows, leads to social selection that unfairly benefits middle-class and better-off parents.

Religious groups may have played a positive role in the development of state education, but the time has come to look to the future, and religious schooling looks hopelessly out of step with mainstream values in modern Britain and the needs of children growing up in our increasingly diverse society.

Many of those involved in delivering education in church schools do amazing work. Their knowledge, experience and passion for education are invaluable.

Those motivated by their faith to educate and inspire young people clearly have a major role to play in a secular education system. But they shouldn’t be permitted to use their position to unduly influence the religious beliefs of the pupils they teach.

It’s time that education policy and practice focused more on children’s independent interests, and building a society based on shared values rather than marching to the beat of religious organisations at least in part motivated by their need for self-preservation.

Stephen Evans is campaigns director at the National Secular Society

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