Sunday, November 29, 2009

Faith in faith schools

David Cameron, being badly briefed, made a bit of a tit of himself by claiming in Parliament that a Slough school run by some extremist Islamist outfit had received government money. Turns out, though, that one of the school's trustees is in fact a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir but any wider point about the poor monitoring of faith schools was lost because of Cameron's mistake.

But a wider point has been lost in the details of the case, which is that a political consensus between the major parties that supports 'faith schools' is bound to produce instances where extremists of various confessional divisions slip under Ofsted's radar and have influence on the running of schools. It doesn't help that any inspections system has to operate in a political culture where the content of religion is unimportant - what seems to matter is only that it is held.

Shiraz Socialist argues that the Tories are incapable of making this point since it is they who have, even more than Labour, faith in faith schools - which is why they've indicated that if they come to power, England will see many more of them.

Couple of point here. I'll be brief because I'm repeating myself but I'm always struck by the way believers make utilitarian arguments for religion in schools. The results are better, they promote cohesion, their discipline is better because of something they usually call 'ethos'. They never say faith schools are better because they set aside space in the timetable for religious instruction and don't expose their children to the evils of teaching about contraception and abortion. Why so coy?

The utilitarian arguments are repeated so often, even non-believers have come to believe them - yet there is precious little evidence to support them. Having taught in eight different 'faith schools' in Glasgow and Lanarkshire, I'll dismiss as absurd the idea that they promote social cohesion.

But what of the better results argument? The league tables - at least those in Scotland - provide precious little evidence for this, showing instead that the most prosperous councils, such as East Renfrewshire and Edinburgh, have the best performing schools. The poorest - Glasgow - makes no appearance in the top fifty.

It could be argued - it has in the thread below this post, for example - that all other things being equal, religious schools perform slightly better.

Firstly, I'd like to see some evidence for this - in particular exactly how all other variables have been held constant because from experience, I can't see how this can be done. Even in the shittiest areas of Glasgow, the religious schools have a more genuinely comprehensive intake simply because their catchment is wider.

In Glasgow's peripheral and impoverished housing estates, absolutely no-one who doesn't live in the schemes sends their children to the schools that serve them. In my experience, this never happens in Catholic schools but where it comes close, the results and discipline are just as poor as the non-denominational comps.

But there's no need to labour the point because even if it could be shown that the religious nature of a school had a positive influence on results, the evidence from the league tables is absolutely unequivocal: compared to the impact class has on educational outcomes, the effect 'ethos' has is so marginal that it is almost completely insignificant. But none of this will have the slightest impact: regardless of evidence, people will continue to have faith in faith schools. It is only to be expected from people of a religious disposition but I really wish the non-religious would stop making evidence-free arguments in favour of religious schooling.

On a related point, while the council has no schools in the top fifty, it is in fact a Glasgow school that comes first in the entire country. It is the only one that operates independently of the city council. Since it is also the only state school in the entire country that is outside local government control, it's obviously impossible to detect a pattern but it seems unlikely that its position in the league tables has nothing to do with this. Been in this gig for ten years and have listened to people going on about the incompetence of the council. And I've done a fair amount of this myself. But I'm increasingly of the view that the reason the education department is such a shambles is simply because it has acquired too many functions. Even if you got rid of the deeply-entrenched culture of nepotism, you'd still be left with this problem: no-one could run it competently because the task it sets for itself is just too big and complex to be managed from the centre.

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