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Faith schools

Watch Ruth Wareham and Jay Harman set out the humanist arguments against faith schools

Ruth Wareham is the Education Campaigns Manager at Humanists UK. Before joining Humanists UK she was a Postdoctoral Research Fellow on the Faith Schooling: Principles and Policies project based in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick.

Jay Harman was Education Campaigns Manager at Humanists UK from 2015 to 2018.

In the video, you heard some of the arguments humanists put forward in opposition to the existence of state-funded faith schools:

  1. Faith schools work on the assumption that children share the beliefs of their parents. They label children before they are old enough to have reached their own conclusions about what they believe. Children are not the property of their parents: they have rights of their own.
  2. Faith schools are allowed to teach narrow and indoctrinatory forms of religious education. Freedom of belief requires the freedom to form those beliefs, and that requires access to a broad and balanced education.
  3. Faith schools are able to discriminate in their selection of students based on the religion of their parents. This can often lead to academic selection by the back door.
  4. When young people are segregated according to their religion or belief, it reduces opportunities to develop mutual understanding and is damaging to social cohesion.
  5. Allowing faith schools to select on the basis of religion reduces the freedom of non-religious parents to choose the school they want their children to attend. This discrimination means some parents are forced to send their children to schools far from where they live.

The vast majority of state schools in the UK are taxpayer funded, and humanist campaigning will often centre on the fact that, as secularists, they belief the state should not be funding such discriminatory practices. They highlight that few would accept discrimination on the basis of religion or belief in other taxpayer-funded institutions such as hospitals or public transport.

In defence, proponents of faith schools will sometimes argue that humanists are free to set up their own ‘humanist’ schools. However, many humanists believe such schools would be just as problematic. The argument they are making is that schools should be open, inclusive, and secular. They should be places where children learn about a wide variety of worldviews and have the opportunity to mix with children from a range of backgrounds.

Some also draw attention to examples of faith schools that do not carry out the practices so worrying to humanists. They claim these don’t teach a narrow form of religious education and don’t discriminate in their admissions arrangements. That may be true, but humanists will typically respond that the problem is that the law allows them to, and the evidence is that many do take advantage of this. They might ask whether people would be happy for individuals and institutions to police themselves when it comes to other activities we legislate against.

Finally, humanists are not alone when it comes to campaigning against faith schools. The Accord Coalition for Inclusive Education includes humanists and religious groups who share a common view that the current legislation on faith schools is unacceptable.

Question: Would society be better without faith schools?

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