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15 October 2001

Christian values? Humbug!

Francis Beckett, educated by Jesuits but now a deplorable pagan, argues that church schools, despite

By Francis Beckett

How strange that, just as we embark on what looks to some people like a religious war, ministers should start trying to ensure that larger numbers of our children are educated at religious schools. Public figures are careful not to stoke the embers of intolerance. Only superannuated bigots such as Margaret Thatcher attack Muslims, and even George Bush now remembers not to call the war “a crusade”. Yet the government is making sure that religious bigotry remains alive and well for our children.

At Britain’s 4,716 Church of England schools and 2,108 Roman Catholic schools, children learn about “Christian values”. There isn’t a more mischievous phrase in the English language. The values they mean are such things as truthfulness, generosity and compassion. Christians colonise these values and imply that non-Christians cannot share them. Yet we atheists can live good lives, too – better, in fact, because we don’t expect to be rewarded in the afterlife. Our kindness is not a spiritual get-rich-quick policy, our truthfulness not a means of piling up celestial stock options.

Last December, the Church of England issued a document calling for more state-funded faith schools. It was quite frank about their purpose. The Church, it said, is involved in education to “nourish those of faith, encourage those of other faiths, challenge those who have no faith”. It explained that church schools “are places where the faith is proclaimed and lived, and which therefore offer opportunities to pupils and their families to explore the truths of the Christian faith”. You’re not supposed, in these schools, to question Christianity; you must “explore” its “truths”.

The document said church schools should prefer parents with Christian backgrounds, employ more Christian teachers and give Christians preference in promotion. Heads, in particular, must be committed Christians. So the more Anglican schools we have, the more teachers will depend for their career prospects on holding the correct religious beliefs.

Such schools should, says the document, reserve some places “for children of other faiths, and perhaps even of no faith”. I like that “perhaps even”. My children might stand a chance, if we could find a school generous enough to overlook their parents’ deplorable paganism. Once there, non-Christian children “will experience what it is like to live in a community that celebrates the Christian faith”.

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The document points out that faith schools get better-than-average GCSE and A-level results. The most cursory examination reveals that they do this by the usual method: selecting their intake. They don’t set entrance examinations, but they do often get the better behaved, more motivated, more middle-class children.

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Take the Roman Catholic London Oratory School, whose pupils include the sons of Tony Blair and his government colleague Harriet Harman. Ten-year-old applicants are interviewed, together with their parents. In theory, it’s a non-selective school, and the interview is simply to check that the boy and his parents are practising Catholics. But a call to their parish priest could establish that, and in reality the interview has a much deeper purpose.

“The interview,” says the prospectus, “is an important and decisive part of the admission procedure, and its function is to assess Catholicity, practice and commitment and whether the aims, attitudes, values and expectations of the parents and the boy are in harmony with those of the school.” It could also be used to assess the parents’ social status. Moreover, the school looks at the boy’s primary school record, to check that he has consistently achieved A or B grades for effort in all subjects.

London Oratory is an extreme example. Few faith schools are quite so blatant. But it shows how a faith school can play the system and, to a greater or lesser extent, many of them do. So no wonder they get good exam results. No wonder – as the British Humanist Association puts it – that “churches on Sunday may be standing emptier than ever, but church schools on weekdays are frequently having to turn away pupils, such is their popularity”. And no wonder that we all know parents who pretend to believe, in order to get their child into a church school. Turning decently motivated people into liars is another moral service faith schools render to society.

Just under a third of English state schools have a religious foundation. Nearly all are Anglican or Roman Catholic, though there are a few Jewish, Muslim and Sikh schools. In some areas, it is already difficult – in certain rural areas, impossible – to get a place in any other sort of school.

Yet new Labour has welcomed the Church of England’s desire to open 100 new schools, promised to increase the number of schools it funds of other faiths, and proposed to reduce the financial contribution required from the Church to its schools to 10 per cent for capital items, and nothing at all for revenue items. We must all pay to have our children indoctrinated.

And indoctrination, however subtle, is what they are for. It’s not as crude as it used to be. When I was 13, the Jesuits made me learn three questions and answers from the catechism each day, and beat me if I wasn’t word-perfect the next morning. Beating isn’t allowed in state schools today, but faith schools were among the last to abandon it. A few years ago, I visited a fee-charging Orthodox Jewish school in north London and found a boy of about eight waiting outside the head’s office to be caned. That school gave up beating, but only as part of the price of entering the state system and receiving state funding.

Christians argue that they have the right to send their children to a school that is committed to their faith. But do I have the right to an atheist or humanist school? Apparently not. If I were a Christian, I would have the option of a faith school pretty well anywhere in the country. If I were a Muslim, a Sikh or a religious Jew, I would have that option only in a few areas.

Teachers in church schools do not deliberately inculcate intolerance. But these schools incubate the intolerance that leads to most wars. They talk of Christian values (or Jewish or Islamic values) and children draw the logical conclusion that those values cannot be shared by non-Christians. These are the children who, when they become adults, will throw stones and insults at other people’s children on their way to their faith school.

My neighbour’s child, who attends a religious Jewish school, recently told me a joke she had heard in the playground. It was one of those about three men – a Jew, an Englishman and an Arab – in a sinking boat. It ended with the Jew throwing the Arab overboard, saying: “There are too many of those in my country.” That reminded me of the rhyme which did the rounds at my Jesuit school, supposedly written by Brendan Behan, about Anglican priests:

Trust not the alien minister
Nor his creed without reason or faith.
The foundation stone of his temple
Is the bollocks of Henry VIII.
Religion should stay in the home and the church, mosque, temple or synagogue. It has no place in the classroom.