Secularists must not be allowed to distort the argument for faith schools

Today a new book, The Ins and Outs of Selective Secondary Schoolsby the think-tank Civitas is being launched in Parliament. I will be there alongside David Davis MP, Tristram Hunt MP and other leading figures from the world of education. I (Gillan) was asked to write on selective admissions by faith schools and below is an abridged version of the chapter.

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Try to imagine for a moment what sort of a country the United Kingdom would become if we could begin again from scratch. There are endless questions and few definitive answers to such a proposal – one person’s heaven many well be someone else’s hell.

Such a scenario is an entirely hypothetical line of thinking, but unlike any utopian flight of fancy, a vision for our society needs to start from the present and also be grounded in the past. We cannot detach ourselves from the history that surrounds and shapes us. This is the state of play with our education system. The current diversity of schools can be perplexing with historical anomalies, but that doesn’t mean we can or should tear up what exists and start over again.

Faith schools are very much part of this picture. 34 per cent of schools in England are faith schools and of these 99 per cent are church schools. Yet, despite their continued popularity and the fact that our education system was created by our churches, secular and humanist groups would rather see the back of them.

Their point of attack has been the perceived injustices relating to selection by faith. The two most high-profile campaigns are the Accord Coalition, which was launched in 2008, and the British Humanist Association’s Fair Admissions Campaign, which is less than two years-old. There is a great deal of overlap between the two campaigns with both being supported by a limited number of groups and individuals, including a handful from a religious background. Despite lacking widespread backing and being recently established, they have nevertheless been successful at getting their message out through the media, and their cause has received significant attention. Some of their objections against faith schools are superficial, but others appear to have some legitimacy and are worth considering carefully. Perhaps the two most substantial accusations against schools that reserve some places according to faith is that they increase the division between children along socio-economic lines, and that they segregate children on religious and ethnic grounds.

The Fair Admissions Campaign’s own research has found that 39 out of the top 50 most ‘socially exclusive’ schools are faith schools. Social exclusion in this case is measured by the proportion of faith-school pupils who are eligible for free school meals compared to the proportion of those who are eligible in the wider surrounding area.

Using eligibility for free school meals as a measure of social exclusion certainly has some value, but there is a limit to what conclusions can be drawn from numbers whose validity and reliability is contingent on the methodology used. It may be fair to assert that there is a different level of social exclusion that can be linked to faith schools, but that does not in itself provide any evidence that they are deliberately setting out to pick and choose along these lines, which the School Admissions Code clearly prohibits. Faith schools on average produce significantly higher results in league tables than other state schools. It is inevitable that for schools that are performing well, demand for places will increase, leading to a variety of consequences, most outside the school’s control, which will include a degree of socio-economic sorting. Research has shown that parents reporting a religious affiliation are more likely to be better educated, have a higher occupational class and a higher household income. Also parents from low socio-economic backgrounds are more likely to consider their child’s friendship groups and proximity to the school as more important than its performance table position.

To think that changing or removing admissions policies will eradicate socio-economic sorting demonstrates a distinct lack of understanding. It is unfair to lay the blame for the choices of parents wanting a decent education for their children at the feet of faith schools.

The other major grievance against faith schools is that they segregate children on religious and ethnic grounds, which is bad for community cohesion.

It is not difficult to understand this viewpoint. Children who mix with others from a range of backgrounds, ethnicities and faiths should be expected to have a better understanding of the world and their society and develop a higher degree of respect towards others irrespective of their differences.

These fears and concerns relating to segregation and multiculturalism have continued to grow in recent years with the rise of Islamic extremism, but it needs to be remembered that in the case of Operation Trojan Horse in Birmingham, which has been the most high-profile to date, none of the schools investigated was a faith school. It is a clear example of the way that social, religious and ethnic segregation is an issue affecting all schools and not just those with a religious ethos.

Despite the perception that faith schools act as a cradle for social division, the Runnymede Trust, a race equality think-tank and member of the Accord Coalition, has found that the intake of faith schools is ethnically diverse. Roman Catholic schools have a much higher population of black Caribbean and black African young people than any other group of schools. In addition, in some Church of England schools, up to 90 per cent of pupils are Muslim. The Church of England’s analysis of Ofsted inspection findings on schools and social cohesion has demonstrated that faith schools at secondary level fared better on average than schools without a religious character.

Anyone who has observed the way that children interact with each other will know that there is no guarantee that they will form friendly relationships with those from different backgrounds. Although there is extensive research which establishes that school diversity has a positive impact on community cohesion and mutual understanding, intolerance is still a common problem. In 2008 the charity BeatBullying published findings on bullying due to religious belief. It found that one in four children were bullied because of their faith. Those who had been bullied often began to question their faith, stopped talking about it, or even felt ashamed of it. It does not take a great leap of thinking to understand why some parents would want their children to attend schools where religious belief is encouraged and is part of everyday conversation.

Much of the disquiet raised by campaigners fighting for the abolition of faith-based selection revolves around pragmatic aspects. Is it unfair? Does it discriminate? Pragmatic issues deserve discussion, but really, when deciding whether faith schools should be allowed to operate as they do, the conversation should begin with principles and needs rather than grievances and failings. Systems that involve humans are not perfect. There are always some individuals or groups that will come out on top one way or another. If faith schools were universally hated, few would be bothered about their selection criteria because parents would be seeking to go elsewhere. It is the demand for places due to their performance and ethos that causes dismay and upset for those who fail to get their children accepted, and this creates the need for sorting in ways which will inevitably benefit certain proactive applicants.

There is no evidence that the majority of the population disapprove of faith schools. In a 2014 Westminster Faith Debates poll, 62 per cent did not even object to faith schools discriminating on religious grounds in their admissions. It is only secular humanists who are actively campaigning in any great numbers against both faith schools and their admissions policies. It is here that we see two worldviews collide. One sees religious belief as an important part of life for many people, and even for those without an obvious faith there is a recognition that the inherent principles and values can provide a strong foundation for life. The other is a belief that religion has no place in public and that faith schools are increasingly detrimental in a secular liberal society, propping up antiquated belief systems. The abolition of religious selection is one step on the road to removing faith schools and their influence altogether.

Sitting in the middle of these two opposing views are the majority of parents who care more about their children receiving a decent education than ideological crusades. Selection by faith is only a problem if the only school they believe is of a sufficiently high standard in their area is a faith school, and that they will miss out because they will not meet the admissions criteria. This then becomes a failing of the other schools rather than the faith school. Removing these criteria will not solve this problem and will just leave a different set of parents dissatisfied.

Most families with a religious faith want their children to grow up and be educated in their faith not just in the confines of their home, but outside it too. This is not an unreasonable expectation given the prevalence of faith schools, and it is logical to see schools make space for those who subscribe to their beliefs. For the parents, choosing a school is not like having choice over which hospital you might pick for an operation. The decision will potentially allow a child to spend years in an environment where they will be able to share their beliefs with others and be educated in accordance with these precepts as a natural part of their upbringing and personal development. If we see our country as a place where religion is to be valued, and where freedom of belief means being able to live out that belief in public, then it makes sense to have schools where religion is part of their inherent make-up. It is an undoubted sign of a mature and self-confident society that seeks to serve all of its citizens in the pursuit of the common good.