Editorial - Let the Godless in or forgo the bliss of funding

20th November 2009 at 00:00
Secular parents have as much right to use faith schools as those of a religious persuasion

Atheists are generally keener to close faith schools than embrace them. So Professor Harry Brighouse's suggestion that secular parents should be as much in favour of faith schools as religious ones might cause a few of the former to choke on their cornflakes (page 9).

Professor Brighouse argues that immersing secular pupils in a religious environment does wonders for their intellectual development. Schools in countries that strictly segregate church and state end up inculcating conformity rather than fostering independent thought. "Children from secular homes cannot become autonomous without an appreciation of what the religious life involves," he argues. To guarantee sufficient places for them in faith schools, he proposes that admissions for religious pupils should be capped at 30 per cent.

Politically, that looks impossible. The Government abandoned its attempt to widen admissions in faith schools for secular pupils by a modest 20 per cent in the face of religious intransigence. Some faith schools are happy to admit pupils of differing faiths or none. But many are not, nor are they obliged to do so.

In fact, both secularists and the faithful would benefit from Professor Brighouse's proposal. Humanists should abandon the idea that faith schools are going to fade away in some secular nirvana. It isn't going to happen. The Second Coming is more likely. It would be better to influence what they cannot abolish.

It is equally in the interests of faith schools to become more inclusive. They are not popular with large chunks of the population. Secular headteachers complain that they are not team players and that they practise covert selection in the name of religious privilege. They are plagued with staff recruitment problems. A Mori poll conducted for The TES found that 80 per cent of voters were in favour of making faith schools more inclusive and 40 per cent opposed any expansion of their numbers. Voters pay the faith school bills. It isn't wise to alienate them.

Faith school exclusivity indeed offends many religious people. They see their inward focus as antithetical to their spiritual purpose. "I have no objection to schools being run by faiths, but I do object to them being run for faiths," as one Christian MP said. Or as one of his more irreverent colleagues put it: "Suffer little children to come unto me, but only if they have a letter from their minister." The recent legal wrangling by the Jewish Free School to determine who is or is not a Jew underlined how extreme state-endorsed exclusivity can be. Discrimination on this scale really should be a private affair.

The state may subsidise faith schools, as Professor Brighouse points out, but it gives parents no guarantee that they have a right to send their children to schools that reflect their religious beliefs. Moreover, secular parents should have a right to send their children to schools that they pay for. In what proportions can be argued about. But faith schools should not expect to take the cash and largely exclude the payer.

Gerard Kelly, Editor; E: gerard.kelly@tes.co.uk.

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