In our latest edition of Opinion Debates, we asked our contributors whether faith schools should still have a place in our society and education system.
Yes – “There isn’t anything unreasonable about it”
While I personally am not a man of faith it seems very clear to me that faith school themselves aren’t the problem, but the education system as a whole. The presence of faith schools as they are today does not present any unique problems that differ significantly from problems faced by all schools.
There are two key criticisms of faith schools: firstly that they create unfair admissions policies; and secondly that they encourage views which are either not deemed socially acceptable or that otherwise create a culture that limits the child’s opportunities.
Starting with a faith school’s admissions policy it seems that there isn’t anything unreasonable about it. In England any school with a designated faith character may only take an applicant’s faith into consideration when the school is oversubscribed – they may not refuse any child a place if a place is available.
A fair response is that large numbers of schools are oversubscribed and therefore a child’s faith inevitably becomes a factor. It is true that for many faith schools which are considered the best school choice in an area, a child’s faith may well be the deciding factor as to whether they get a place.
The root causes of oversubscription have little to do with faith. Instead, they can be traced to lack of funding for schools which prevents them from taking more students and lack of reform which leads to poorer results and therefore fewer parents willing to send their children there. Investment in local non-faith schools would help to alleviate the problem of oversubscription and therefore reduce the instances of faith being included in entrance criteria.
Furthermore, the problem of preferential treatment can only be applied to schools that are explicitly categorised as faith schools – any maintained or independent school may not use faith as a criteria at all. In official government regulations on the matter, the faith of a child is very rarely relevant to admissions.
To simply state that they have no place at all in a modern society is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Other issues with faith schools such as concerns about radical views or issues of stifled opportunity can sadly only be attributed to individual institutions. In recent years there have been some concerns regarding teaching of radical and potentially inflammatory views in Christian and Muslim faith schools; however these instances are in the minority, making it far more reasonable to revise faith school policy and reform individual school practices rather than level the entire system.
A key example would be approaches to sex education. Even in non-faith schools with a Christian background, sex education can still be woeful and in my experience rarely went more in depth than ‘here’s a condom and here’s how it works’, so to expect Christian faith schools to teach beyond the doctrine of abstinence before marriage is perhaps asking too much.
I fully understand that on this issue both sides are at loggerheads: faith schools don’t want to deviate from their religious positions, and critics want them to catch up. A simple solution to this would be to send external sex-ed teachers to faith schools. That way faith schools don’t have to teach anything they don’t want to, but children still receive the well-rounded education they need. Surely this is a far easier solution than simply saying we don’t need faith schools, which to fully dismantle would require an overhaul of almost a third of UK schools?
It would be unfair of me to dismiss any criticism of faith schools and state that they’re fine as they are – there are absolutely valid concerns about their conduct and impact on the lives of students. However, to simply state that they have no place at all in a modern society is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Reasonable restrictions are already in place on what is acceptable for faith schools to teach or avoid, and regulation seems to be the best policy in dealing with problems that they present.
No – “Lord knows I’m never going back”
I’ve been there, I’ve done it, I’ve got the t-shirt and Lord knows I’m never going back. First-hand experience of what a faith school involves is all I need to be able to say with complete conviction that they are not a good idea.
The outdated model that faith schools are currently allowed to run on preaches dogma without contradiction, enforces beliefs without question and stamps on the curiosity of young minds. Faith schools are used as an easy way of keeping children in line with a particular religion, which greatly limits the freedom and choices of the students themselves. For nearly 11 years I did not hear a proper argument against the existence of God. Questions which edged conversation closer to debate were almost immediately sidelined and teachers taught elements of the curriculum with an obvious bias. Only whilst taking a Philosophy A-level did I realise that there were genuine criticisms of any of the beliefs I’d been force-fed for over a decade and a half.
I am not against religion itself – by all means have faith in whichever deity you choose – but a person should at least have the opportunity to be presented with the alternative and make their mind up for themselves; an opportunity that does not present itself in faith school.
A person should at least have the opportunity to be presented with the alternative.
Faith schools also have the ridiculous opportunity to strip its curriculum of vital information. Sex education can be reduced to something which resembles little of anything remotely useful. Other schools put condoms on cucumbers while we were sat with a piece of paper and told to circle all of the forms of contraception the church approved of. Funnily enough I don’t think natural family planning or abstinence are realistic options for this generation’s high school lovers. When ‘that girl in Year 11’ gets pregnant because her boyfriend didn’t know how to use a condom properly, it will be the school that’s to blame. This form of education is impractical, old-fashioned and downright harmful.
Advocates of faith schools often claim that they maintain a sense of community. Yet, with many multi-cultural areas being commonplace throughout the UK, faith schools preserve ignorance of alternative beliefs, dividing communities further. Focusing heavily (if not solely) on one belief can lead to a complete lack of understanding and intolerance towards another.
Religion does have its place in education and maybe the regulations on faith schools can be updated. Maybe the problem can be rectified. Regardless, as it stands the current system reduces the rights of children, can stunt their natural curiosity and in certain cases leaves them ill-equipped to deal with the realities of adult life.
Opinion pieces are the view of the author and in no way reflect the views of Forge Press.
Words by David MacLachlan and Kate Marron
Image credit: Kaishu (Wikimedia Commons)