Until Labour was elected in 1997, all state faith schools were Christian or Jewish.
By 2001, there were four Muslim, two Sikh, one Greek Orthodox and one Seventh Day Adventist. The Education Secretary, at the time, David Blunkett said he wanted to "bottle" the ethos of faith schools, and in a white paper declared: " We wish to welcome faith schools, with their distinctive ethos and character, into the maintained (state) sector, where there is clear local agreement."
Now in 2004, the “buzz word” is CHOICE. Jo Coleman has been investigating whether more choice should necessarily include the Faith School option. If parents had the choice would they prefer a single-faith education?
Jo began by asking some local mothers if faith is a priority for them in their children’s education?
“I’m not into Hindu as a strict faith. If I was… I’d go out of my way … we’re in a multi-cultural [society], you’ve got to know all the others as well, not just your own specific one. I believe they’ve got to be confident … and cope when they come out of the education system and they can get a good job with what they’ve learnt….”
“We chose the faith school but understand that religion is covered in all schools and [if we hadn’t got in, we] would have continued to go to church on a weekly basis and ensure that they understood the Christian side of things from our home.”
“I do believe it’s important and they go every Sunday morning to Hebrew… classes, I actually teach there. But I also think it’s important that they have a wide view on life and learn about other cultures… I’ve been in to talk to the children about Hanukkah and other festivals. I strongly believe that children should mix with other cultures and religions and beliefs and learn about others and in return others should learn about theirs.
Jo then sought the opinion of Terry Sanderson, Vice President of the National Secular Society. He has grave concerns about children being sent to single faith schools.
“Naturally, kids ought be exposed to religion because it’s a part of life and a choice they can make. But in faith schools it’s not a choice they can make…religion permeates the establishment – [it] sounds like indoctrination to me… Faith schools, by their very nature [are] actually saying their own beliefs are superior… schools should be for learning not springboards for preaching.
To get a balanced argument in favour of faith schools, Jo spoke to Norman Hoare OBE, Headmaster of the non-denominational but Christian, St George’s Voluntary Aided School in Harpenden. Is this indoctrination?
“We don’t preach Christianity, we introduce children further to …. the nature of our religion, the study of our faith that they have begun in their families. We look at it from an academic point of view as well as a practical point of view. It’s the way that the Gospel is lived out in the community that’s important….you can’t make children become Christians … if you try to force children to become anything you have the most enormous difficulty… Faith schools are not about indoctrination.
The subject then came up regarding state funding.
“We receive the majority of our funding from the government but the governors and trustees have to find a small but significant proportion of the costs to run buildings.”
“If people want …. to have their children educated in a religious establishment they should pay for it….these schools have strict entry requirements that give privilege to children of religious backgounds… which is discriminatory….I don’t think it’s right that we should all pay for these schools when only the select few have access to them. School is the very best time to make friendships with people from other cultures – if we have a sudden a burst of minority faith schools….separating them from their peers in the majority culture how on earth are they ever going to be integrated and get to know what the majority is like…if they live in ghettos and go to school in ghettos…. how is society going to cohere?
Does this system of separating children according to their families’ faith lead to division within society? Norman Hoare has a positive outlook.
“I have a significant number of non-Christian families who… are very pleased that their children are in a faith school where there are values. And toleration and understanding of different people’s attitudes and faith systems is actually encouraged, more so than in a non-faith set-up. In any faith school, I would like to see that the syllabus for religious education and nature of the community life and values is not segregationist. I would want to see it along a pluralist line, while the tenets of that particular faith are taught and encouraged amongst the parents and student population".
"These schools are …. always at the top of the league tables…because they have these selection criteria to ensure problem kids never get in….parents know this…[and those with the] determination to get the best for their children will go to extremes to get their kids into these schools".
"Pre-selection is not a word I would use – any parent can state a preference… in allocating places our criteria include active members of a Christian church. Therefore, if you have parents behind you… you are going to succeed. I understand all parents want to have good education and that’s one of virtues of the English Secondary Education system - there should be variety and there should be choice".