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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.