Why faith schools are bad news

By Ellie Levenson, April 14, 2013

Parents of children due to start state primary school this year will find out shortly where their child has been allocated. It's a nervous time - a recent National Audit Office Report found that a fifth of primary schools are full or oversubscribed with a predicted shortfall of 240,000 places next year.

It's understandable, therefore, that parents examine all options when it comes to admissions, and that some will decide to send their children to a Jewish school, of which there are a good number in the UK, with further choice in the private sector. This isn't just because they can't find a non-faith alternative they like, but often because of a belief that faith schools are better schools.

But, in my view, to do this, however good the intention, is to do our children, and non-Jewish children, a disservice. In part, this is because I oppose all faith schools, even those from the majority faith of Anglicanism. I believe they encourage hypocrisy in making parents play the "faith game" to win places, and perpetuate the mistaken idea that the only way to develop a moral code is through religion. What's more, they can even provide a smokescreen for racism by helping people avoid those who are different.

They take taxpayers' money to provide a service that not all can use. It is ridiculous, for example, that my non-Catholic friend lives on the same street as an outstanding Catholic school that her daughter cannot go to. (Faith schools are obligated to offer places to children who are not of that faith but only if they cannot fill all their places with those who are.) But my reasons are not simply based on opposition to religion having a role in the organisation of state education.

If a child goes to a school where all or most of the pupils are Jewish, does that child not grow up thinking the world is like this? How do children learn to live as a minority if their formative years are in a place where everyone is like them? Where everyone in the football team or the orchestra has the same heritage and where most teachers and caretaker and lunchtime assistants are members of the same religion.

How will they learn to live as a minority?

I know a woman hesitant to make friends with non-Jews because she doesn't feel able to adequately answer their questions about the specifically Jewish aspects of her life.

We need our kids to know that people are not necessarily familiar with their culture, that they will have to explain and argue and sometimes learn to counter prejudice. Unless of course we want them to socialise and work only with Jews in their adult life, too, which would be somewhat limiting, both socially and professionally. We should want them to learn about other cultures not just in theory and in the classroom (which many classrooms do badly, according to Ofsted reports on religious education), but from real life.

Do we really want everyone our child meets in his or her daily life to be Jewish? And conversely, if we remove our Jewish children from mainstream schools, we prevent non-Jewish children from ever meeting a Jewish child. We counter prejudice and antisemitism not by removing ourselves, but by being visible.

We need to share with others lessons and meals and sport, even detentions, so as to demystify ourselves and stress our similarities as members of humanity - and show that Jews are not one homogenous group.

Even more important to me than my children growing up to know that not everyone is like them, is that non-Jewish children know the same. I don't want a non-Jew to go through school never meeting one of us. I don't want my child, or yours, at work or university or at a party, to be told: "You are the first Jew I have ever met." Do you?

Ellie Levenson is a lecturer at Goldsmiths and a freelance journalist

Last updated: 10:45am, April 14 2013