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Faith schools

Watch Ruth Wareham and Jay Harman set out the humanist arguments against faith schools
So the main problem with faith schools is that they’re based on an idea that because a child’s parents come from a particular religious background and have certain religious beliefs, that the children ought to develop those same religious beliefs, and that’s problematic because religious freedom is a really really important value and humanists believe that children ought to have the opportunity to decide about these very important things, like what you believe about your place in the world, by your own sort of powers of reasoning, and of course your parents will influence your decisions in some ways or others - some of them will be more obvious than others but they shouldn’t be able to enforce their faith upon you and faith schools are sort of set up with that as a kind of underlying premise, I guess.
Unfortunately, faith schools which make up a third of state-funded schools in England and Wales are allowed to teach a faith-based doctrinaire version of RE. They are, in other words, allowed to proselytize in line with their religion or denomination, and we see that as problematic because children, regardless of the school that they have been sent to, regardless of the background they’re from, have rights - and one of those rights is freedom of religion or belief and freedom of conscience, and if they are being proselytized to at an early age, an age where maybe they don’t quite have the faculties to identify what is a claim and what is a fact, then that freedom of religion or belief is being taken away from them.
Some schools, voluntary aided schools, for example, are entitled to select up to a hundred percent of their pupils on the grounds of their religious beliefs. We could end up with a hundred percent of children in a school who all come from a particular faith background, who all come from the same ethnic background, and that’s really problematic for society in general because it means that according to which school you go to you’re sort of segregated off from other people in the community, and that’s not very good for social cohesion, for inter-communal understanding, that sort of thing. Dividing children up on the basis of those labels is destructive at its core and lots and lots of faith schools do this.
They select children on the grounds of religion or belief and that has the effect of segregating children along those lines, and that is just completely destructive for social cohesion, for integration, for mutual understanding and respect between people of different religions and beliefs. So we believe, of course, that all schools should be completely open and inclusive. Also, leads to problems like parents pretending to have religious beliefs that they don’t have in order to get into certain schools. Now that might be entirely understandable because parents are very caring and they want the best for their children and they want to get the best school for them.
But the problem is that the sort of segregation and separation that goes on through these admissions policies also leads to those schools seeming better when actually it’s just that they’re kind of selecting pupils by the back door
It might be a reasonable position to say, for a parent to say, that they want their children to be raised in line with their religion or belief. Parents have that right, that right is enshrined in the European Convention of Human Rights but what they don’t have a right to is for the state to provide a school that meets that need whilst disadvantaging others, and that is what faith schools do. There are lots and lots of parents around the country who find themselves living close to quite a few religious schools, many of which will select on grounds of religion or belief, and their freedom of choice, their access to their local schools is massively reduced as a result of that.
Freedom and rights are all about trade-offs, and the presence of faith schools rather than fully open schools that everyone can equally access I think clearly don’t get that balance right, and they champion the rights of some religious people over the rights of everyone to equal access.

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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