Faith schools
Faith schools

What is a faith school?

A faith school is a school which is explicitly connected to a particular faith community, and promotes the ethos of that faith within the school. So, for example, if you attend a Catholic school, there is likely to be a chapel, where you will be expected to attend Mass fairly regularly; if you attend a Jewish school, all the food in the canteen will be kosher. Though the great majority of faith schools in the UK are Christian - mostly Church of England or Roman Catholic - a small number are Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or Sikh. Faith schools make up approximately one third of all state schools (that is, schools which do not charge fees and are funded by taxes) in the UK. Faith schools achieve (slightly) better GCSE and A-Level results overall than non-faith state schools, but are also likely to have fewer students who qualify for free school meals (a key metric for poverty). They are frequently popular and oversubscribed, allowing churches to use them as recruitment tools. Did you suddenly get dragged along to church by your parents when you were in Year 5? You won't have been the only one.

Some faith schools apply very stringent criteria for entrance, insisting for example (in the case of Christian schools) on evidence of baptism (the ceremony that inducts a child into the Christian church) within three months of birth, along with a record of more or less continuous church attendance. They may also require teachers to toe the church's line on moral issues, making life difficult for teachers who are openly gay, divorced or have children outside marriage. Other church schools interpret their remit more broadly, only insisting on a general sympathy with Christian values, and adopting an inclusive approach to different lifestyles. Some church schools, reflecting the make-up of their local area, actually have a majority Muslim intake.

Faith schools are one of the many aspects of our educational system which baffle foreigners. Some countries, such as the United States and France, make an absolute separation between church and state, insisting that religion is an entirely private matter and should have no role in any state-funded institution. In France, you cannot even wear a headscarf or a necklace with a crucifix on at a state school.

Should state-funded faith schools be abolished?

Faith schools are an anachronism (out of date). The 2021 census showed that Britain is no longer a majority Christian country, still less a Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist country. The majority of British people have no religion.

Even if Britain was more religious, it would make no sense for the government to support faith schools through taxes. The government doesn't sponsor churches or mosques or synagogues or temples - why should they sponsor faith schools? Religion is a private matter. People should be free to worship how they like, and to bring up their children in the faith of their choice, but not on taxpayers' money, and not on state-owned property.

Faith schools are divisive. They prevent children from becoming fully integrated members of society, by surrounding them only with people of their faith group. Church schools tend to be dominated by the children of pushy middle-class parents who know how to game the system, bagging a positional good for their kids by feigning a non-existent faith. This encourages parental hypocrisy, setting a terrible example for children. Non-faith schools suffer through the loss of these families' support. They then turn into 'worse' schools, creating social division. Some faith schools with a more fundamentalist tendency may promote homophobic and misogynistic values.

State-sponsored faith schools have no place in a democracy; public institutions should be neutral on issues of belief.

On the other hand ...

Faith schools have a unique and precious character. They promote values such as kindness, altruism, the common good, and solidarity with those less fortunate than ourselves. You don't have to be a believer to want those values to thrive. Non-faith schools, both state and private, are less likely to promote these values, driven as they are by the ruthlessly competitive ethos of contemporary education.

Even though Britain may no longer be a majority Christian country, its culture and history are still fundamentally Christian. One of the most unifying national events of recent years, the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II in 2022, was a thoroughly Christian affair. Preserving church schools preserves a crucial part of our national identity, and therefore our national unity.

Faith schools provide children brought up in a particular faith with a strong sense of their own identity which may protect them against discrimination. People of minority faiths have, throughout history, been forced to either defend or stifle their identity in order to fit in with the majority: Catholics were banned from taking degrees at Oxford and Cambridge until late in the nineteenth century; Jews have had to change their names; Muslims have had to defend themselves against false accusations of supporting terrorism. Schools for minority faiths (and Christianity is now a minority faith in the UK) protect children from these pressures, allowing them to grow up in a safe, secure environment.

Closing down faith schools would be a discriminatory assault on people on grounds of their beliefs. It would be the act of a dictatorship, not a democracy.