You gotta have faith

Posted on: 01 October 2010 by Allan McLachlan

Getting your child into a 'faith school' is the must-have accessory for sharp-elbowed middle class parents. But, asks Allan McLachlan, is it the schools or parents who are really responsible for academic success?

Faith schools

Unless you are obscenely wealthy, the joys of having children are carefully counterbalanced by the sort of malevolent fear that keeps you sweating and awake for decades. You have to be afraid of everything from obscure diseases to rampant kiddie fiddlers: the threats change and multiply. You suddenly have to become an expert in things you never gave a cuss about before – education, education and education – and then you got worries. 

When it comes to modern state comprehensive schools, there seems to be two conflicting alternative realities. There’s the reality of school league tables, record A Level results and apologist reports designed to quell the anxieties of parents. In this reality, there are problems, but schools are improving. Everything in the garden is rosy. 

Then there’s the world you see with your own eyes: school playgrounds taped off as crime scenes, pregnant 15 year olds bursting out of their school uniforms, teenagers who communicate in a pidgin of textspeak and mutated Afro-Saxon slang, kids who can barely read and write at 16.

I live in central London and probably see a biased picture. Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests that things aren’t necessarily that much better elsewhere. Friends who moved to a sleepy Home Counties market town recounted recent events at their local school, where rival gangs fought with knives and airguns for control of the school drug trade.

You start to wonder when Grange Hill turned into The Wire? Parents “with sharp elbows” will go to great lengths to get their offspring into ‘better’ schools. That can be as simple as paying fees to educate them privately, forking out cash over the asking price for a house in the right catchment area to taking up religion in an effort to get them into ‘faith schools’.

Faith schools are perceived to be better in terms of exam results and discipline. There are more than 7000 faith/church schools in the UK today. Before 1997, most faith schools within the state system were Christian - Anglican, Catholic - or Jewish. There are now a handful of Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Greek Orthodox and Seventh Day Adventist schools.

As a parent I am presented with a dilemma. I can’t afford to send my children to a fee paying school. I would if I could. Also, I am not prepared to fake piety in order to have them accepted at a ‘faith’ school. Their mother and I are both atheists and active humanists. 

I have had occasion recently to smile wryly at contemporaries who suddenly embrace the faith of their fathers in an effort to place their offspring in a nearby church school. People who neither believe the creed of the church nor in God, Jesus and All That can be seen at the end of the pew, mouthing along gingerly as the congregation belts out Faith of my Fathers.

Having grown up in Glasgow, a city whose religious divide has been a source of hatred and violence for generations, I am not actually in favour of schools that divide people at an early age. 

I have problems too with religious belief spilling over into biology classes.  There is evidence that some ‘faith schools’ present ‘creationism’ and ‘intelligent design’ as scientific fact. They teach that the world was created 4000 years ago by God. Intelligent design teaches that evolution was guided by an external force. That is, God.

I don’t think, to paraphrase the title of Professor Richard Dawkins’ recent Channel 4 polemic, that faith schools are a menace. I do think that they are divisive and unnecessary and, most importantly, should not receive funds from the public purse.

The lessons we need to learn are why they are comparatively more successful than other state schools?
Faith schools are have the advantage over normal comprehensives in that they are selective. The schools can cherry-pick better behaved and more able pupils.

Inevitably, though, it boils down to the parents. It’s not rocket science (or dispensational theology for that matter). Children whose parents encourage and support them at school will do better than children whose parents don’t. The parents who try to get them enrolled at these schools are the parents who care enough about their children’s education to push them and to discipline them.

The proposed ‘free schools’ are effectively ‘faith schools’ but with foundations that are not necessarily religious. 

It’s an admission of defeat, that the comprehensive schools which have been the foundation of state education in this country for nearly 40 years, is irrevocably broken.

It will mean that the most able children, with the most support from their parents or guardians, will be creamed off, leaving most of the remaining secondary schools to fail and rot. 

Obviously this flight from mainstream state education will be damaging. As a parent, however, I don’t feel that I can afford to be anything but selfish, ruthless and ‘sharp elbowed’ when it comes to securing a future for my children. 

Not the sort of thing  I was taught at Sunday School.

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Faith schools: good or bad?

It is argued that faith schools are exclusive, divisive and an obstacle to social harmony. Many operate their own admissions policy, which creates a school population that is misrepresentative of its local populations in religious or socio-economic terms. Statics suggests that faith schools outperform their State conterparts.

  1. 50% Yes
  2. 50% No
  3. 0% I don't care so long as the child gets a good education
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