Tuesday, March 13, 2007

How to lose friends and alienate people #1

Try making the case before an audience of Catholic teachers that faith schools should be abolished.

To say this doesn't make you exactly popular would be something of an understatement. We did a few detours into the history of the potato famine, Bloody Sunday and the collusion of British military intelligence with Protestant paramilitaries.

I took the view that they weren't actually my fault. I'm not sure they were convinced but in any event, we got to the heart of the matter with a line I'm sure you've heard before. Someone suggested that they would send their hypothetical children to a Catholic or Episcopalian school on the grounds that, "Faith schools have better discipline and better results because they instill in their pupils a set of values", I was told.

That academic success is a function of 'values' is an idea that is both counter-intuitive and contradicts my experience but we can park that one for now. What annoys me about this particular line is that it is repeated so many times it tends to be believed and not just by the faithful. But is there actually any evidence for this?

None that I'm aware of. Barring private schools, those topping the league tables in Scotland are not faith schools. Not even those who top the league in Glasgow are faith schools. First by a mile is the only school in Scotland that has opted out of council control. Running a poor second is one that happens to be in one of the wealthiest parts of Glasgow. [The worst-performing ones, you'll be astonished to learn, are in the poorest parts. Down to poor 'ethos', no doubt.]

You could, I suppose, argue that all other things being equal, faith schools get better results than non-faith schools. The problem with this argument is that all other things are not equal for the reason outlined in Johann Hari's piece I linked in the previous post. The evidence would suggest that genuinely comprehensive schools do better than neighbourhood schools, if the neighbourhood in question happens to be a bad one. Therefore Catholic schools, because they always draw from a wider catchment, many do slightly better because there are so few of them that are neighbourhood schools in this way. But it cuts both ways. This also means they will do less well than the best performing schools because unlike them, the wider catchment means their intake is never as homogeneous as leafy-suburb neighbourhood schools.

Now if you're of a religious disposition and favour faith schools, I'm sure you'll disagree but you could at least concede it makes sense - which is more than can be said about this vague nonsense to do with 'values'. But there's a more substantive point and it is to ask, what is with these utilitarian arguments for religion? If you're religious, you don't believe in order to have better schools, or to uphold the institution of marriage, or to provide the 'social glue' that's supposed to keep our society together or whatever. You believe because you think it's true, and that this in turn will lead to the salvation of your own souls. Would it kill you to make an argument for your religion on these grounds?

And while you're at it, could you please stop propagating the lie that religion is the sole source of morality? Because as well as being fairly easily falsifiable from the historical perspective, the Bible doesn't even require you to believe this, for goodness sake.

There - feel better already. That's why I like blogging.


dearieme said...

Aren't you being a bit unreasonable in complaining that people with a religious faith are prepared to believe things without evidence? Anyhow, what's it got to do with "faith" in a Catholic school in Scotland? Isn't it about Irish tribalism? One of my grandfathers was a product of Irish slum culture and my God he loathed it, bless him.

Shuggy said...

Aren't you being a bit unreasonable in complaining that people with a religious faith are prepared to believe things without evidence?

Well they do insist on doing this during my lunch-break.

Jeffrey Mushens said...

It tends to be nice middle-class types who prefer 'faith' schools - at least in the South. It has not very much to do with religion, more, I suspect, to do with 'values". As a Christian I would prefer my children's schools to have had Christian values. But my eldest started at a Church aided school, that wan't noticeably so and we moved her to a traditional primary. They did the usual potato prints and sand pit stuff while their contemporaries were swotting for the 11+ in private schools and wearing silly uniforms but it does not seem to have hurt them. I think it's up to parents to bring up their children, not schools or the state.

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