Theresa May’s desire to bring back grammar schools has united the Labour party in outrage, divided the Tory party and even briefly eclipsed the pending terror that is Brexit. The Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has accused May of taking the country “back to the 1950s”.
And yet, there has been surprisingly little complaint about another plank of the Government’s education platform – faith schools.
Every third school in England is a faith school (by contrast, in Scotland the proportion is just 5 per cent). In 2010, the vast majority are run by the Church of England or the Catholic Church, but there were also 38 Jewish, 11 Muslim ones and four Sikh state schools.
That might seem like over catering for a population where just 2 per cent go to a Church of England service each week. But since 2010, the Government’s education policy has only encouraged more. Non-state organisations can found free schools, and it turns out quite a lot of those organisations have religious motivations. In one wave of 42 applications, 17 were from religious groups and five succeeded.
Faith schools can prioritise children of their faith when they are over-subscribed, but free schools and new academies have up till now only been able to do this for half of places. The idea is to encourage inclusivity.
The effectiveness of this cap, as the Department for Education acknowledges, is “questionable”. In Church of England free schools, 63 per cent of children are white, while in Jewish schools the proportion is 84 per cent. In Hindu schools, 91 per cent are Asian, and in Sikh schools the proportion is 89 per cent. Across all of these schools, just 4 per cent of students are black.
So what’s the solution? According to the Government, the best thing to do is remove the cap altogether. Instead, these faith schools should show they are attractive to families of other faiths, twin with other schools and consider shared teaching.
All this is fine, if you are dealing with an existing problem. But the Government wants to make it bigger. Another reason it gives for removing the cap is to allow faith schools to expand.
This, in the 21st century, seems bizarre. Of course, religious organisations have a long tradition of being involved in education. But promoting schools segregated by religion and race hardly helps social integration.
In 2010, the then-First Minister of Northern Ireland, Peter Robinson, described segregated schooling as “a benign form of apartheid”. He had a point. In 2012, half of Northern Irish schoolchildren were taught in a classroom where 95 per cent of their schoolmates shared their faith. As Robinson put it: “We cannot hope to move beyond our present community divisions while our young people are educated separately.”
Of course, as a unionist politician, Robinson glossed over the sectarianism that underpins Protestant-filled state schools. But, generally speaking, there is little need for faith schools. Secular schools are not some kind of totalitarian atheist indoctrination course. My secular, state education (I narrowly escaped Catholic school) allowed religious parents to pull their kids out of sex education, and reserved rooms for Muslim students to pray in during Ramadan. Some of the liveliest debates could be found in religious education classes. We learnt, from teachers and each other, about Passover, Eid, and Easter – without assuming one was superior to the other.
And then there’s the times that religious schools have abused their powers. Whether that’s sex scandals at Catholic schools, intolerant teaching at Muslim schools or the Jewish school that banned mothers from driving their kids to school.
Using an exclusive religious structure to teach the next generation science, maths, citizenship and literature is, at best, eccentric. At worst, it is taxpayer-subsidised brainwashing.