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Are Faith Schools a Good Thing?

Are Faith Schools a Good Thing?
The UK government is to push for new legislation in England to make it easier for new faith schools to be founded. This could lead to the opening of thousands of new Catholic schools throughout the UK. The Church of England has also made it clear that it wishes to establish hundreds of new Anglican schools over the next 5 years.

This has come as the education secretary said ministers would not be ‘returning to the past’, although plans were announced at the same time to dramatically increase the number of grammar schools. Do we benefit from a plurality of secondary education, or are faith schools really entrenching religious divergences in society? Peter Kearney, Director of the Scottish Catholic Media Organisation and Douglas McLellan, vice chair of the Scottish Secular Society answer these questions.

The programme started with a discussion about the main differences between faith and secular schools. As regards admissions policies, the humanists say that faith schools select pupils on the basis of their parents’ religion, which entrenches religious and in some cases ethno-religious divisions in society, as well as perpetuating socio-economic inequality. According to humanists it is bad for social cohesion. Peter Kearney expressed however, that living in a society where there is a plurality of faiths is a good thing. “We shouldn't ever apply a one sided fix-it-all dogmatic approach to education in schools.” Peter suggested that if faith schools didn't exist, there is no suggestion that parents wouldn’t bring their children up in accordance with their faith, which was  a point that Douglas McLellan engaged on, saying that the issue is not bringing children up in a faith, but “having the state provide a level of support, protection and funding within society is another, as it says that this group is special, and that this group has a special way of raising children that isn’t afforded to everybody else in other state schools.”

Peter Kearney used the example of what has happened in France, with acts of the most “appalling religious hatred, where you have most of the terrorists having passed through the state education system which is mostly secular” to justify faith schools. Douglas McLellan countered this by saying that what has happened in France has far less to do with what is happening in education in general and far more to do with what is happening in society in general. “When you say to a group of people that you have to be taken to the edge, you are different, you are no longer a part of this society, it wasn't their faith that excluded them, it was general society in France,” he said.

Host John Harrison made the point that as far as education standards go, placing restrictions on headmasters as only being able to recruit teachers who profess the same faith as that of the faith school, places possible limits on academic excellence. Peter Kearney strongly denied that, saying that far from it, that this is “a contributing factor of the success of faith schools, and not only faith schools, but other specialist schools, such as Gaelic schools in Scotland. I don't think anybody could suggest that this is discriminating against teachers who can't speak Gaelic,” he said. “The reason that Catholic schools are successful is a result of a set of common values, a shared ethos. Where there are values held in common, whether it be in business, education, society in general, these organisations are successful.”

Talking about selection, there is an accusation which indicates that faith schools select pupils not only on the basis of parents’ religious beliefs, particularly when there is high demand for a school. This makes it easier for them to achieve higher educational standards. Peter Kearney strongly denied that, saying the only selection criterion for Catholic Schools is that parents are catholic, something that Douglas McLellan said was incorrect. “There is evidence to support that faith schools do select pupils because of socio-economic factors of the children concerned,” he insisted.

Modernity, and the world moving on beyond fixed values, was the next topic. Faith schools perhaps have a problem because many of their morals and ethics are based on religious traditions which are fixed in time. Peter Kearney expressed that this is actually their strength, in that having a “set of solid underlying beliefs’ which you can use to interpret what you say in a fast and ever changing world, is a wonderful thing, and it is something that is an enormous attraction to people. This is why religion is so attractive, because we are without question spiritual beings. The whole belief in transcendence has fascinated humanity since the beginning of time. To pretend that these things don't exist is probably futile and pointless.” Douglas McLellan expressed that modernity has changed outlooks and instead of religion we should be looking at human rights and equality, and these should be the key ways to educate children across the world. “The way that religion works, is that people think that we have this faith, and that makes us slightly better than everyone else. We have a dangerous situation where we have some schools saying that ‘we are different.’ There are Jewish schools in England, for example, that are hardly inspected, and all they are taught up to the age of 12 is the Torah.”  Peter Kearney replied that believing in human rights also means believing that parents have the right to education their children as they wish.

Perhaps this is all intentional, in that by encouraging traditional religious values, politicians in some countries push society away from modernity?, host John Harrison asked. Douglas McLellan made the interesting point that “the biggest threat to modernity is actually non-denominational schools in the UK, whose governors or boards are perhaps particularly religious, and who want to take their schools, which should not have a faith, down a particular route. For example, in teaching creationism. So either we govern every board, every school, or we say that religion is a family matter, and education is a secular thing, a thing that values education, above anything else.”

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