Saturday 5 December 2009

If you're opposed to faith schools, should you work for them?

(I've been meaning to write this post for a while. It concerns a matter of integrity and could possibly brand me a hypocrite.)

I'm not in favour of faith schools. I think they are ideologically divisive and work against integrating different cultures into society at large. Isolating children in a learning culture that explicitly excludes those of different ethnic, cultural or religious origins may reinforce a specific social heritage, but it also encourages an undesirable "them and us" attitude. A particularly illustrative example is that of Northern Ireland where sectarian strife has been inculcated into generations of schoolchildren, leading to inter-faith violence that remains difficult to eradicate.

At the same time I understand why caring parents tend to favour faith schools: the standards of behaviour and academic achievement in those schools appear in general to be higher than in non-faith schools. The perceived differential, however, is less to do with the disputable benefits of faith-based education than with faith schools' use of a form of selection; faith schools, on the pretext of a religious test of applicants (actually of their parents), are able to screen out pupils who would tend to lower their averages.

So I think there's a good case for saying that faith schools are unfairly catering for a privileged elite, and the extra feature — religious indoctrination — is just an additional undesirable add-on.

I don't believe faith schools are in general a good idea. But in my day job I deal with faith schools — specifically, voluntary aided Catholic primary (and a few secondary) schools — providing services that are paid for 90% by the state and 10% by the church. I could therefore say that if 85% of my living comes from work in faith schools, 8.5% of that living is funded by the church.

Doesn't this run counter to my ethical principles? Am I not supporting the idea of faith schools by not quitting my job and finding something else to do?

Not necessarily.

The people who benefit from my work are the pupils, and to some extent the teachers. Improving conditions and facilities for children aged 4 to 11 (or 15 in the case of secondary schools), who are unlikely to have had any say in where they go to school, is a matter of making a difference where one can. The pupils and teachers are not responsible for the system, and meanwhile children need to be educated.

The indoctrination aspect is of course a concern to me. The schools I visit display religious imagery — and there's plenty of stuff about Jesus, as one would expect from Catholic schools, but I'm pleased to report that I've never seen any creationist nonsense. I'd heard that the Catholics don't like Harry Potter, but my observations indicate otherwise. The preponderance of religious ritual in these schools, however, is worrying — in the case of primary schools this is definitely indoctrination of children too young to know what's being done to them. Visiting a Catholic primary school on the day of First Communion is a disturbing experience (and goes some way to explaining the incidence of paedophilia in the Catholic priesthood — but that's probably best left to another blog-post).

If these schools didn't exist I would hope to be providing the same services to secular state schools — it's an accident of my employment that the firm I work for has connections with the Catholic Church, whose local administrators turn to us for professional services.

Ultimately it comes down to this: I'm against faith schools because although they may be giving children a good academic education, they do a disservice by indoctrinating them with religious dogma that's incapable of objective substantiation, and they are socially divisive. If I can improve their conditions to the extent that their environment is more conducive to learning in general, I hope the children will get an even better academic education, as a result of which they'll have a better chance, as they grow older, of seeing through the religious nonsense.

Being as it were on the inside, I also get to see how one particular denomination of faith-based education operates. It's far from ideal, but I believe I can live (and work) with it.


  1. You don't fully understand why parents favour faith school - good manners and high academic standards are only a part of it.

    Faith schools are expressions of genuine communities. In my area the Catholic community comes together at church - and also at the school gate. Far from being socially divisive, our local Catholic school acts as a focus of and catalysts of a real community.

    Secular schools pretend that communities are geographically based. This may be true in rural villages. But it is not true in the inner city.

    In inner city area there are many diverse communities based around churchgoing, being a parent at a school, social activities and charitable work linked to the above.

    You are also wrong about religious instruction. It is not brainwashing. I was brought up in a Jesuit school - and religious lessons were always occasions of lively argument and debate - not passive acceptance of indoctrination.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Baba. My concern with faith schools is that the communities they foster are communities inside larger communities, effectively fencing off cliques of one particular faith from the society within which they must otherwise function.

    Incidentally I don't consider religious instruction in a faith-based primary school to be "brainwashing" as there's little already there to wash out. It is indoctrination if it's taught as truth, and that other faiths (and non-faith) are by definition false. The teaching of unbiased comparative religion, however, is an entirely acceptable, indeed beneficial enterprise.