Less faith, but more faith-schools

What lies behind the seemingly inexorable spread of religious-based education?

The new school year will see the launch of a crop of state-funded "free schools", several of them with a religious dimension. The British Humanist Association has launched a new fundraising campaign to support opposition to the spread of faith schools. In a message to supporters Polly Toynbee, who is apparently still president following the A.C. Grayling debacle earlier this summer, bemoaned the fact that there are already around 7,000 faith schools in England and Wales, including nearly a fifth of secondary schools. She described the advent of the free schools as "a growing threat" to mainstream education in this country.

Faith schools are gaining more control over their curricula, which they now entirely set themselves. Those that cannot currently discriminate in their admissions criteria are often gaining the ability to do so. And teachers at Academies and Free Schools are not required to hold qualified teacher status.

This renaissance of faith schools is a paradox in what continues to be one of the least religously observant countries in the world. Until a few years ago, church schools (as they were then called) were largely peripheral to the education debate. The overwhelming majority were (and are) Anglican and most of the rest Roman Catholic. They were generally primary schools. They were successful and over-subscribed, but were not expanding and attracted little interest from politicians of any party. Their existence was a legacy of history - of the time, before universal state education, when church-run schools usually offered the only education available.

All that has changed. Both the last Labour government (especially under Tony Blair) and the present Coalition have been vocal in their support of faith schools, and have legislated to encourage their spread. Even before the introduction this year of free schools, we have seen new denominational schools being built and even former "bog-standard" comprehensives taken over by church authorities and re-invented as faith academies. In some cases, children who might previously have expected to attend their local school are being turned away because they have not been baptised, or because their parents are unable to convince the religiously appointed (and religiously accountable) teachers and governors that they are sufficiently rigorous in church attendance.

For the quality of a child's education, and their life-chances thereafter, to be dependent on the religiosity of their parents, and for this blatant discrimination to be sanctioned by the state, is alarming. For it to be occurring in an increasingly secular society, where most people are indifferent to religion, is almost incomprehensible. What, exactly, is going on?

Two very different trends underpin the modern expansion in faith-based schooling. One derives from church schools' reputation for promoting discipline and good exam results. David Blunkett once expressed a desire to "bottle" their recipe for success. For middle-class parents who can't afford, or who are ideologically opposed to, private education, such schools present an attractive option. Thus they become ever-more desirable, more over-subscribed and more dominated by middle-class families who have the time and determination to do what is necessary to get their children into them. While the "faith" label has become a brand marker of quality, the appeal of these schools has little or nothing to do with religion as such.

Instead, church schools have come to embody the twin desiderata of education ministers: higher standards and greater parental choice. That in itself might be enough to explain their expansion. But there's another factor at play, too, which is the increasing importance of religion in the politics of identity and multiculturalism. The most obvious manifestation of this has been the demand by non-Christian religious groups to open their own faith schools. To many, this seems only fair: once you accept the principle of religions running schools it looks discriminatory to restrict the right to one or two churches. There are well-established Jewish schools, and in the past decade state-supported Muslim, Hindu and Sikh schools have followed.

These moves have been controversial, with opponents arguing that the new schools encourage the development of a ghettoised society. Education should be about bringing children together, not about segregating and labelling them on the basis of their parents' religion. The existing (and new) schools run by the Church of England have largely escaped this criticism. Yet there have been very few non-Christian faith schools created. There are only eleven state-funded Muslim schools, as opposed to more than four and a half thousand Anglican ones. Moreover, partly because there now exist faith schools for other religions, many church schools have felt entitled to impose stricter religious tests on parents and to make these schools more overtly Christian than they ever used to be.

Most notoriously, this leads some parents to fake religious devotion in order to get their children into a good local school. A friend of mine, an Anglican rector, describes a depressing scene he witnessed when visiting a church where he used to worship before his ordination. At the end of a suspiciously well-attended early morning service, most of the congregation queued up to sign an attendance register. He reported that "a vast extension to the church was built simply to accommodate the influx of parents, barely any of whom turn up once their children are safely in the school."

He doesn't approve, not because he dislikes church involvement in education but because he sees it as an abuse of power by the church, which "simultaneously sits in judgement on parents and families, and encourages hypocrisy among them". It also "degrades the sacraments of Christ's Kingdom by making them entry requirements for something they have nothing to do with."

It is anomalous, certainly, that taxpayers who are not religious - and are not prepared to fake it - should be expected to fund schools that discriminate blatantly on grounds unconnected with education. It makes no more sense than would a school that operated an overt preference for white pupils, or the children of Liberal Democrats, or those whose parents support Manchester United.

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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage