Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Faith Schools

In the name of “diversity” the government are giving huge amounts of money to religious groups to establish schools – part of their agenda to marginalize democratically elected Local Education Authorities. Since 1997 112 applications have been submitted by faith organisations to take over local community schools, 103 of them were supported and many more are being considered as part of the academy programme.

You might well ask – what is the relevance of religion in western societies? Are they actually a good role model for schools? The Church of England is tearing itself apart over the issue of gay bishops, the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams twists in the wind between the African churches who believe homosexuality is an “abomination” and the more liberal North American Anglicans who provide most of the funding. The Roman Catholic Church has been rocked by child abuse scandals involving its priests and bishops (this has nearly bankrupted some dioceses in America) and affairs between priests and women parishioners. I’d also like to know how democratic is an organisation that does not tolerate elections (except for the papacy), believes in the infallibility of the Pope and refuses to allow women any meaningful participation. Alternatively I wouldn’t be happy with mosques controlling schools; even the more mainstream have questionable attitudes on homosexuality, evolution and women’s dress codes.

So these organisations that give out the aura of crisis are being allowed an increasing influence in schools. This is despite the fact that in our increasingly secular society organised religion is disappearing at an exponential rate. According to the Church of England’s own research, based on declining attendances, it will cease to exist in 2050, at the moment over half of the congregations don’t have anyone in the 18-34 age group. For non-conformism the picture is just as bleak, by their own projections the last Methodist will attend a chapel in 2037. The Roman Catholic Church is struggling to staff its churches with priests; in 2005 just 31 men were in training, a slight rise on 2004 when only 27 started. According to some researchers the mosques have an equal attendance compared to the Church of England. Do we want hundreds of schools controlled by the immams? I’m not raising this from the point of view of Islamophobia – I don’t believe any religious organisation has a place in education.

Faith schools cement divisions in society and exclude the poor. The Institute of Research in Integrated Strategies carried out research in Inner London, they found that 41% of children in the immediate proximity of Church of England primary schools received Free School Meals, yet only 32% of them attended the schools, for Catholic primaries 42% received FSM but only 28.3% found their way into the playground. The ‘Guardian’ revealed a starker and disturbing example close to former Education Secretary Ruth Kelly’s constituency in Bolton. Canon Slade Church of England took in 258 children from 87 different primary schools; one quarter of them lived outside Bolton. However, the eight closest schools geographically sent only 39 children, Castle Hill the closest primary (only 10 minutes walk away) didn’t send any children and the next closest Tonge Moor sent only three. In an ethnically diverse area the school is almost 100% white, it has only 6% of children with Special Education Needs against a Bolton average of 27%. There was a telling quote from one of the parents on the “economically disadvantaged” estate where the school is sited, “We can’t go to that school… it’s not for the likes of us.”

Children are usually chosen to attend faith schools based on their parents involvement and attendance at church. Every year there are miracle conversions as parents who want their offspring to attend a socially selective school begin to worship at an appropriate church, as soon as their children are accepted they drop the church like one of the hot cakes they used to bake for them. Some clergy resent the time and effort they are forced to expend in writing references for parents they know will abandon their church at the first opportunity.

I don’t have a problem with churches involving themselves in education, as long as it is on a voluntary basis, again they need to get their own house in order first; in 1905 56% of children attended Sunday Schools in 2000 it was estimated that only 4% chose to attend. According to another survey by the Christian Research group, there are now 700,000 children under the age of 15 attending Sunday schools, compared to 1.4 million in 1979.

Every time I see ‘Church of England’ or ‘Roman Catholic’ on a school board I have to smile because that’s probably one of their only financial contributions, over 95% of the funding for faith schools comes from the state in other words from our taxes. There’s also the blatant discrimination where governors can stipulate that the candidate must be as “active communicant” yet these same teachers will have the pick of jobs in community schools as well.

Britain is a fairly tolerant secular society without any anti-clerical tradition, more the Vicar of Dibley than the Da Vinci Code. Yet this tolerance is being stretched by the increasingly bizarre organisations emerging to gain state funding. The local diocese controlled most Catholic and Anglican schools and the governors came from the local church. The new breed of faith schools are being fronted by unelected unaccountable trusts or foundations. Sir Peter Vardy, the wealthy entrepreneur behind the Reg Vardy chain of car dealerships, sponsors the Emmanuel Foundation. It became the subject of controversy when it was disclosed that pupils in its schools were being taught the Old Testament belief that God created the world from nothing in six days.

The history of faith schools reveals some interesting examples; in the early nineteenth century the Anglican, Catholic and Non Conformist churches competed against each other to educate the children of the poor. In the latter part of the century the state played a more prominent role. The Conservatives attempted to regularise and involve the churches through the 1902 Education Act, this created voluntary aided religious schools where the government would pay 95% of the costs. Only the wealthier Anglican and Catholic churches were able to bear this cost, the non-conformist churches complained that their children would be forced to attend a school and be indoctrinated by a faith they did not support. The Methodists, Congregationalists and Baptists organised the Passive Resistance Movement, by 1905 over 50,000 summonses had been issued for non payment of rates, 150 people were imprisoned including 61 ministers of religion. The failure of the 1906 Liberal Government to repeal the Act helped the emerging Labour Party to win non-conformist voters with their espousal of secular education.

Most research shows that faith schools make little (if any) difference to test results or children’s life chances. If you’d have said twenty years ago that a Labour Government would fund fringe religious organisations to teach creationism to school children you would have been regarded as a fantasist. Welcome to the Alice in Wonderland world of education.

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