On 4 December, the Education Bill received its Second Reading. One of the more
controversial proposals is to encourage religious organisations to bring forward proposals
to meet any identified need for new schools. The government believes that the distinct
ethos and character of faith schools helps them perform better and has welcomed proposals,
in a report by the Church England, for 100 extra church secondary schools because
"they have a good record of delivering a high quality of education".
I would challenge this conclusion. Any selective school can achieve better than average
results, and church schools are selective. They take less than their share of deprived
children and more than their share of the children of more ambitious parents. This covert
selection goes a long way towards explaining their apparent academic success. "Selection,
even on religious grounds, is likely to attract well behaved children from stable
backgrounds," said a spokesperson for Ofsted in the Times Educational
Supplement, 16th February, 2001.
A recent study by the
National Assembly for Wales found that the higher grades achieved in church schools at
GCSE were not statistically significant if free school meal entitlement (used as a measure
of deprivation) was taken into account.
There is no magic ingredient in religious schools, as the head of a
Church of England revealed in the Independent on 15 June: "The fact that we
select those who are supported by parents is the key defining factor in the kind of pupils
we send out into the world."
The government has stressed that religious schools should be
inclusive. However, the Church of England report (June 2001) actually said: All
church schools must be distinctively and recognisably Christian institutions... and
the justification for retaining and aspiring to extend its provision is, and must be,
because engagement with children and young people in schools will, in the words of the
late Lord Runcie when he was Archbishop of Canterbury, enable the Church to: Nourish those
of the faith; Encourage those of other faiths; Challenge those who have no faith... It
also recommended that: Church schools, where there is strong demand for places,
concentrate on the nurture of Anglican and other Christian children in their faith and
allocate resources accordingly".
When only 7.5 per cent of adults go to church, such overtly Christian schools cannot serve
the whole community. Neither do they respect the autonomy of children in the vital matter
of choosing their own religious and value commitments. Religious education and worship in
church and other religious schools are not generally as broad based and multi-faith as in
22 per cent of all schools in England are Church of England and 10 per cent Roman
Catholic. If even more are created, it will worsen discrimination against other religions
and provoke more demands for publicly funded schools for other religious groups. On 18
February, Yussuf Islam of the Association of Muslim schools said on Radio Four's Sunday
Programme "well while we have so many Christians schools - I mean if
there is going to be a general ban on all religious schools then I'm sure that, you know,
there would be no griping amongst anybody ..."
Religious schools discriminate against everyone not of that faith -
in their admissions and employment policies, their curricula and their assumptions about
their religion. Some faith - based schools will not even try to serve the whole community
and will divide children not just by religion but also ethnically. Northern Ireland and
Bradford are examples of what happens to communities where children are educated
separately and grow up knowing little of each other.
As Richard Bentley, Priest-in-charge at St Peter's in Petersham wrote in a letter to The
Independent in February: "In its indecent haste to benefit from the
Government's misguided delight in church schools, the Church of England is colluding with
forces which continue to divide society and disinherit children. Church members should
only feel shame at the repeated assertion that the quality of church schools is somehow
superior to the love and professional dedication shown by staff in state schools... It is
these schools, truly open to applications from all races and religions, which have the
moral and professional authority to claim that they have at heart the good of our whole
I uphold the right to freedom of belief and understand the desire of
parents to bring up their children with the family's beliefs. However, it is not the job
of publicly funded schools to instil a religious faith in children and states are not
obliged to provide schools catering for every shade of belief or philosophy. The state has
its own interest in ensuring that children grow up to be responsible and capable citizens.
Groups lobbying for religious schools sometimes cite the First Protocol, article 2 of
the Human Rights Act 1998, part2: No person shall be denied the right to education. In
the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and teaching, the
state shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in
conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.
But this article guarantees people the right of access to existing educational
institutions, it does not require the government to establish or fund a particular type of
education. The requirement to respect parents' convictions is intended to prevent
indoctrination by the state. Schools should, of course, teach about religion and
philosophy but they should do so in an objective, critical, and pluralistic manner.
The curriculum in some private religious schools would certainly appear to contravene
another human right. Article 13, Convention on the rights of the child states that:
The child should have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom
to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds.
We need to have all our children educated in schools that believe that concern for others
is not a Christian virtue, or a Jewish or Islamic virtue, but a human virtue; and where
all the faiths are equally respected. Faith schools do not, and cannot, do this.
Of course, given the existence of so many religious schools in this
country, it would be naive to think that these can be abolished. However, if the
government wishes to ensure that faith schools are inclusive and take account of the
interests of all sections of the community, as stated in the White Paper that was a
precursor to the Bill, they could consider taking powers to ensure that the admissions
arrangements of faith schools are more open. In a recent article in the Financial Times,
a government official is quoted as saying that evidence of inclusive admissions policies
would be required and cited as an example a new Church of England-backed City Academy
where admissions are 40:30:20:10 - CoE; non CoE Christian; non-faith; and
non-Christian respectively. However, the government has said it will not impose quotas.
Many Labour MPs share my concern about government policy on religious schools. The
Education Bill will now be considered in a committee but when it returns to the Commons
chamber for its Report Stage, I and others will be tabling amendments to restrict
selection on religious grounds.