Faith schools

Education, education, education” was how Tony Blair set out his priorities for office – as Labour campaigned to put classrooms at the top of the political agenda. This was one of the key election planks that ushered in a new era of Labour domination, in 1997. A huge amount was subsequently invested in education but whether children became better educated as a result remains a moot point. In the lead up to the 2015 General Election, I have no doubt that education will be one of the important issues for debate, as it generally is, although I suspect the economy, immigration, Europe and the NHS will be the topics that will be contended ahead of education. In this posting, I want to focus on three examples of one aspect of education, and that because it has recently featured in hot discussion on my Facebook page, besides which the issues raised are in my opinion important. That aspect is to do with Faith Schools, something I have written about earlier, available on this website.

In Friday’s (31/10) Southend Echo the question was posed “Should Taxpayers Fund Faith Schools“? This is in the light of Southend increasing the number of primary school places and doing so by increasing the capacity of certain faith schools in the town to take extra pupils. Readers were invited to email their views to the newspaper and to help them make up their minds, two local councillors, known to have strong views on the matter, gave opposite answers. James Courtenay argued “Yes” on the basis that faith schools could help provide what parents wanted. One practical consideration was that faith schools were over-subscribed and the children that failed to get in tended to end up at non-faith schools that were also oversubscribed, and this was particularly applicable around the town centre. His argument was essentially pragmatic rather than ideological given the solution arrived at had the benefit of “producing two for the price of one, giving parents the school places they desperately want“. Julian Ware-Lane argued “No”. His argument was that “children should be together in spite of faith or non faith“. He expressed discomfort that increasing faith school provision “can lead to a path of intolerance“, concluding “we are undoubtedly a better society a better society when we mix“.

While there are certain issues where I would side with Julian rather than James, in this instance I am with James. Sadly, children suffer because of bad parenting and societal inequalities. If it were not for this fact, the issue of parental choice would for me always trump all other considerations, such that if parents wanted to send their children to faith schools then they should be encouraged to do so and, moreover, government interference should be minimal and education should be about much more than mere exam success. I sent my son to a faith school and do not regret it, even though the faith school in question had a lot to be desired and the non-faith alternative, my local catchment primary, had a lot going for it, not least its good standards and it being community minded. For me, having an ethos closest to my own Christian based one and preserving childhood innocence were important factors.

The second matter is to do with the Jewish faith school that was marked down by Ofsted because it didn’t pay enough attention to diversity matters. Before I go on, let me make my position clear. I believe parents should be children’s main educator and look to schools to help in that task. Our son still goes to church with us and as a family we pray and read the Bible together. Yet, partly arising out of my role as a community activist, I have encouraged him to engage with, understand and respect not only Christians who think similarly to me but those who don’t, those from other faiths and no faith at all, conformists and free thinkers, rich and poor, clever and not, old and young, male and female, able and disabled, black and white, straight and gay, homeless folk and drunks. This seems to me to be reasonable. I would want his school to take a similar position.

This story, and there are others, brings into question the value of inspections as they currently stand. We need schools to be made accountable but any inspection regime needs to be fit for purpose. I object to indoctrination in schools for the dubious reason of promoting British values, especially when this is reinforced by inspection guidelines that penalise good schools. Any government that allows desperate, asylum seekers hoping for a better life to drown at sea because they don’t want to encourage them by providing search and rescue facilities loses all rights to determine what are values are taught. To penalise faith schools that don’t teach same sex marriage in an affirming way, or do not give equal precedence to the teaching of those faiths that are not compatible with the faith ethos of the school, I consider to be unacceptable.

Which brings me to my third point, which strictly speaking is not about faith schools, but is about “faith” and “schools”. The topic is home schooling. I have to confess, my research on the subject has been limited and when I Googled on “homeschool statistics uk” I didn’t get all the information I had hoped for, in particular how many parents who homeschool their children do so for reasons to do with their faith. I make this point because over the years I have met a fair number of home schoolers and the majority had a strong faith that influenced their views on how their child will be educated. What did come as a mild surprise is that there are between 50,000 and 80,000 homeschooled children in the UK and the number is on a sharp rise, because of dissatisfaction with the school system.The experience of home schooled children will vary but many of the reports on home schooled children are surprisingly positive.

When I wrote my “Parents Guide to the 11-plus” six years ago, as an aside to the main topic, I considered both the advantages and disadvantages of home schooling (p51) realising for some this might be an option if a reader’s child failed the 11+ (I also addressed the matter of faith – p54). It was a consideration for us given the three closest non-selective schools had all failed their Ofsted inspections. I agreed with one concerned lady who told me: the three things that mattered were standards, manners and discipline, for if I were not convinced I could well have home schooled. As it happened, my son passed the 11+, the grammar school he went on to attend, while by no meansĀ  perfect, met that criteria, and the rest as they say is history. I have no intention to have at a go at the secondary schools in my town; I respect those who teach in them and I know many pupils who have done well, both in grammar and non-grammar schools, but I would raise the point that some home school their children because they are not satisfied with the alternatives.

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