Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Against faith schools

Everyone these days - the government, the opposition, the churches and miscellaneous other religious groups - seems to believe that faith schools are a Good Thing and there should be more of them. Apart from offering "choice" in education, it's usually claimed that religious schools have a better "ethos", discipline and, by extension, better results.

I have to dissent from the prevailing opinion and argue that, not only should there be no more faith schools opened, but those funded at the tax-payers' expense should be closed down forthwith for the following reasons:

Faith schools are state-sponsored segregation. The Bishop of Motherwell, who recently argued that there was no place in Catholic schools for homosexual teachers, previously opposed the sharing of campuses between Catholic and non-denominational schools. This initiate by the Scottish Executive was not, mark you, suggesting that the Catholic sector in these campuses would no longer be able to close down any conversations about abortion, contraception or homosexuality (as is their want) - or to discriminate against non-Catholic teaching staff or staff that live with their partners or are divorced - but merely that kids from different confessional divisions should share the same facilities. Of this idea, Archbishop Conti - clearly not gifted in understatement - said it was like asking for the "repatriation of the Irish." When the scheme did go ahead, the saved were separated from the damned by a screen partitioning the dining hall! How anyone can defend this is beyond me - and the problems this causes when faith overlaps with ethnicity should be obvious.

Faith schools reinforce the old lie that religion is the source of morality and the idea that faith per se is a virtue. The logical outcome of building a multi-cultural educational system on the basis of one that historically has favoured the Christian faith is to extend the same privileges to all other faiths. While this can be seen as a form of progress, in another sense it's reactionary because the net result is, while no one faith is seen as the sole repository of morals and wisdom, the insidious idea that religious faith of whatever kind is morally preferable to none. This same woolly-headed, contradictory thinking can be seen in Prince Charles' vapid suggestion that the monarch should be the "Protector of faith" rather than the faith.

When I complain that I object to paying taxes towards an educational institution that will exclude my son on the grounds of religious belief, I'm usually told I can send him to a secular school. The problem with that is there's no such thing. No matter where he goes, he will be compelled to do Religious and Moral Education; it's compulsory for at least one period a week up to fourth year. The study of history, on the other hand, is entirely optional after S2. He will also - unless he gets specific permission to do otherwise - have to endure assemblies where this gooey, New Age, relativist, mumbo-jumbo crap about faith being a Good Thing is pushed relentlessly.

Faith schools also don't do what is claimed of them. Better behaviour? I've taught in a few and I would refute this. They are - on the whole - better at getting them into uniform but apart from that they're no different. Sometimes they appear to be - but there's a simple explanation: a Catholic teacher once told me that she thought all this stuff about ethos and discipline was rubbish; the explanation for the appearance of greater quality lay in the fact that, because these schools had a much wider catchment, they were genuinely comprehensive - whereas what are normally termed "comprehensives" were really just neighbourhood schools, lacking the heterogeneity of faith schools.

Neither does it seem to shore up actual religious faith or observance. The C of E and the Roman Catholic church retain and expand their influence in education yet congregations continue to decline. My own experience tends me to believe that the church hierarchy should be worried about the quality of religious education in their own schools because I found that the overwhelming majority of those I asked didn't give a damn what the church taught about contraception, abortion, euthanasia or sexual relationships in general. Contrast and compare with the US and its legalistic separation of church and state: you can't pray in school or have any kind of religious services but religious belief and observance of every kind seems to flourish in the US.

Ofsted's chief inspector got himself into bother by criticizing the quality of education in Muslim schools but unbelievably praising the Bronze Age morality of the Exclusive Brethren who have schools run by loons who don't allow the use of the internet because it's "a device created by Satan to yoke together unbelievers. In www we see the stamp of the devil, and it says: wicked, wicked, wicked." These make the Muslim schools look rational by comparison - but that's the point: in the final analysis, faith schools ultimately set limits on rationality whenever that rationality threatens to challenge some central tenet of the faith. Separate faith schools should be closed down and "non-denominational" schools should become properly secular, with no ministers, priests, svengalis, nuns, mullahs or any other experts in the supernatural allowed with 200 yards of the building.

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