No faith in new system

7th April 2006 at 01:00
Selection on religious grounds may be more restrictive, writes Matthew Holehouse

So the Government is sticking to its plan to expand the number of schools and academies with greater independence and private backers.

Among the groups such as Microsoft and Dixons who have declared an interest are the evangelical Protestants and creationist Sir Peter Vardy, as well as mosques and synagogues. All sensible and liberal people appreciate the value of having different religions play a part in public life. But is this really what we want?

Don't parents have a right to a religious education for their children? Well, no. We've got the freedom to have a religion, and a right to education, but there's no obligation for the Government to provide schooling in the shape and colour that religious groups see fit. Faith schools are no more an entitlement than ice-cream schools or mime schools.

You have to ask why parents would want a religious education. It's easier to understand the case made by the religious fringe. You might ask whether teaching creationism as science counts as "education" at all. But you can at least see why the fundamentalist parents would want a school where their progeny would be cocooned from sticky issues such as fossils and fornication.

But is this really the motivation of most parents? When they argue that their children should have a "Christian" education, do they mean that geography and maths should be taught by parables and media studies tutored by Catechism?

Religious instruction occupies a fairly small chunk of the timetable.

Research has shown that church schools take a disproportionately low number of poorer pupils, and given that many faith schools vet their applicants according to religious observance, isn't having a "religious ethos" simply a signifier of a school having "nice" children? This selection on a religious basis is where the real problem lies.

In my town, entry to the excellent Church of England secondary school is dependent on a reference from a local vicar confirming a commitment to the church, with extra credit for involvement in scouting and youth groups.

Consensus is that selection on ability grounds is a solidly Bad Thing, but at least the opportunity to pass the divisive 11-plus was open to everyone.

Is it not more restrictive to select according to religion, thereby effectively guaranteeing places for certain families and locking all others out? It is, of course, in the school's interest to run its admissions policy like a gentleman's club; if you can't sieve pupils'

backgrounds then there could be all sorts of kids cluttering up the classrooms.

But it is difficult to justify having taxes spent on an institution that most people are, as a matter of faith, ineligible to join. You could, as many local parents seem to, attend church for a year or two solely for the purpose of guaranteeing a church school place. But surely the church wouldn't advocate such a spiritually dishonest practice?

Are parents wrong to support the system? Obviously not. Religious schools, as is argued in their defence, are often very good schools, and it would be bizarre for eligible parents to surrender a place on grounds of "rightness". School admissions are plainly parent-eat-parent. But it is dishonest to defend faith schools under the banner of choice. Religious schools increase choice, but only for those who fulfil the criteria. For everyone else they mean one less school for which they might qualify.

The Government puts itself in a strange place philosophically by paying schools to preach. Doesn't funding something through taxation suggest a degree of approval? That's why hospitals and armies are state sponsored, and why tobacco companies and circuses aren't. If the state is paying for kids to be educated in an Orthodox Jewish way, isn't that approaching an endorsement of halacha and bet haknesset and tzedakah and all the rest of it?

All perfectly good and wholesome things you might think, but are they the Government's business? And what happens when these faiths collide? Where's joined-up government when the DfES is putting it about that Jesus categorically is and is not the Messiah? Where does New Labour sit on transubstantiation? And what about the minor faiths? Would you trust a politician to decide which faiths deserve backing?

Religion is too messy, too frothy for government to get involved in.

Certainly, faith schools will strengthen the beliefs of their pupils and tighten the community from which they are drawn. But they cannot deny that they serve to isolate communities from each other; indeed, isn't teaching their children in isolation from the rest their very purpose?

In cities with Muslim neighbourhoods and Muslim shops and Muslim community centres, a Muslim school would sever the umbilical cord to the non-Muslim population.

In the present heady climate there's a great deal of talk of the dangers of sectarianism. I'm not brave enough to make such a claim. I just think it's a bit of a shame. Minimal religious observance at my school has bred a fairly easy disregard for faith, and you might wonder whether the reverse is true for faith school pupils.

Isn't it healthier for us to be forced to learn together? Instead of "valuing difference" via an RE textbook from behind school gates, shouldn't we be sitting next to it and challenging and exploring it? Some of us might even quite like to be taught in a mixed environment. Who wouldn't give an Amen to that?

Matthew Holehouse is in Year 13 at Harrogate grammar. He has a conditional offer from Queen's College, Oxford for October this year

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