Faith schools are no menace

Last week, Richard Dawkins delivered a polemic on the British digital TV channel, More 4, against the principle of government support for faith schools. (It is available for viewing at 4 On Demand, although possibly only in the UK.) Faith School Menace set out a number of the most common arguments about why faith schools are bad: that middle-class parents fake religious observance to get their children into better schools, that they are able to openly discriminate, that they cause or foster divisions, and that the religious organisations behind them have influence far beyond their contribution to the school’s upkeep. Dawkins added two arguments more in line with his secularist/atheist tendencies: that they teach things that are proven to be false, particularly as regards evolution, and that they rely on indoctrinating children when they are most vulnerable to it.

Some of the points he makes in the first group are quite valid. He held up a map of Oxford in which there were three faith schools clustered in a small area, but the non-faith schools were miles away, and that if you live in the area where the faith schools were, you had less chance of getting into a local school. This seems valid on the surface of it, but in fact not all religious schools do discriminate against people from outside their church. The Church of England has a number of schools in which a majority of the pupils are not even Christian, let alone Anglican (this is particularly true in east London). The objection to this kind of discrimination has some validity; in the past, some of the white religious groups such as Catholics and Jews might have had a good reason to have separate schools because hostility towards them was rife. This is not the case anymore, particularly for Catholics, but it may well be true for Muslims in some places.

I should add here that religious or secular status is not in itself an indicator of whether a school is good or bad. I went to three Catholic schools as a child and two secular ones. As a rough guide, two of the three Catholic schools were reasonably good as was one of the secular ones. The other two were dreadful; the Catholic junior school seemed to be under the control of the reactionary faction of the Catholic school and had bizarre rules, allowing the boys and girls barely any contact with each other outside the classrooms with no explanation as to why. Several of the teachers were miserable individuals and they all taught in the lower section of the school, and the school had a system of prefects (usually girls) who could sometimes be heard screaming at a classful of children, while the teacher was out of the room, “stop talking!”. The bad secular school was a terribly cruel and brutal place.

Still, despite all this, the school had a fairly good ethnic mix as many of the Catholics in Croydon are from places like Goa and various parts of Africa. There was very little racial tension. The same was true of the Catholic secondary school I attended for my first year. However, some religions, and some branches of other religions, are ethnically based and any school which discriminates in their favour is discriminating against others. If a Jewish school sets its admission criteria based on strict adherence to a particular form of Judaism, that is not racial discrimination, but if they require them to just be Jewish but not necessarily practising to their standards, that is certainly racial discrimination. This may happen with some Muslim schools also: a school which demands adherence not only to Islam but to, say, a “Tablighi ethos”, is likely to end up with a predominantly Indo-Pak pupil base (there are some white and black converts who conform to this, but rarely any other ethnic Muslims).

In the case of the “fake observance”, it should be pointed out that fake observance at the outset can give way to true observance later, but even so, if churches are acting as a kind of hereditary or ethnic friendly society, a private club you have to join to get your kids into their school, that’s not a good way to run an education system, all the more so if they set entry barriers which keep out the less well-off, such as expensive bespoke uniforms. I should add that Catholic schools in many places in the world cater to pupils of their religion and others, and see it as a way of spreading the gospel through service to the community. If the Catholic church wants to do that here, I don’t have a problem with that; if they are merely providing services to their old ethnic bases in the absence of belief or practice, that surely isn’t a good thing. The state funds all schools, and should make sure that all schools are up to the standard that parents should not have to choose between faking religion, even if it’s the religion of their grandparents, or a bad education for their children. This is to say nothing of those of different religions who are shut out of multiple local schools, for whom faking another religion is likely not to be an option at all.

I don’t buy the “dividing the communities” argument. Northern Ireland’s problems, as I have said here many times in the past, did not begin when Catholics and Protestants started going to different schools. There may be a case for making sure schools there (and in other places of long-standing Protestant/Catholic division, such as Liverpool and Glasgow) integrate, although in some cases it could lead to gang problems within the schools given the way some of the paramilitaries in Northern Ireland had developed. I was never conscious of any division between Catholics and others at schools in Croydon, where I grew up, and we certainly weren’t taught to be suspicious of them or consider them as infidels or anything of that sort.

The secularist arguments were not well laid-out. Dawkins was asked one of the most common and weakest arguments against evolution, namely why there are still apes if humans are descended from apes. His response was that humans are in fact apes and, rather than being descended from chimpanzees, we simply have a common ancestor. Dawkins: one, Muslim schoolgirl: nil. There are much stronger arguments than this, such as why there are plants growing in England that wasps confuse for female wasps so they can pollinate them; if the plant existed without the wasp, the plant is unlikely to have lasted very long. A schoolgirl was shown arguing that there is a barrier between bodies of fresh and salt water, so that the fresh water stays pure for us to drink, something that left Dawkins flabbergasted, but it could well have been the interpretation that the girl quoted a bit of that was unscientific, not the fact of such separation. After all, we get our drinking water from fresh sources such as wells and streams and they are never, or in some cases almost never, polluted by salt water. The land itself separates the two types of water.

Finally, there is the issue of what right parents have to indoctrinate their children in their own religion as if they own them. Well, parents have always been responsible for bringing up their children the best they can, and to those with a religion, that includes letting them in on the religion they believe in. It’s not some kind of power play; the parents regard it as doing their best for them. No doubt Dawkins will teach his children what he believes as well. This teaching can hardly be said to be unbreakable given how many children were sent to religious schools in the UK and stopped practising as soon as they left. I stopped going to Mass when I was eight, well before I left my second Catholic school.

I should add that not all Muslim parents want Muslim-only schools for their children. I have spoken to one parent in London who pulled his son out of one because its standards just weren’t up to his. Similarly, when I interviewed sister Ardo from Ottawa about her niqaab story in 2006, I discovered that her family had passed over an Islamic school for her younger sisters partly for financial reasons but also because they simply found the state school to be preferable for various social and educational reasons. She had herself worn niqaab in that same state school in her final year (age 17 onwards). I have read various stories on blogs about private Muslim schools where there is a lack of professionalism, where teachers are not paid enough and contracts not honoured and so on (particularly in the USA).

As for my own personal preference, if I lived in a decent part of town I would prefer a school that did not interfere with pupils’ expression of their own religion (such as hijaab and so on) and did not cling to relics of the past (uniforms, prefects, pointless rules) as so many British state schools do, than one like them with the Christian bits replaced with Islamic equivalents. But it is also quite justified for parents to want to keep their children away from those who are openly hostile to them and their religion, and to prefer a religious school to a state school in an inner-city area where there are problems with gangs and where the general standard of behaviour is much less than what they want their children to see. I am sure Dawkins is a fairly wealthy man and lives in a place where that choice does not have to be made; many Muslim parents in the UK are not so lucky.

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