In 2014, the Trojan Horse schools scandal in Birmingham led to an outcry against faith schools; however, the schools involved were community not faith establishments. More recently, concerns about a number of extremist private faith schools resulted in the predictable onslaught against all faith schools in the country.
State-maintained faith schools currently account for around 35 per cent of primary and 17 per cent of secondary state schools in the UK. They are popular because parents want their children to have a strong foundation in their own faith with a greater understanding of religious texts, a stronger sense of history and a more detailed awareness of ritual than they would receive in mainstream schools.
They want their children to be taught by teachers who share the same religious values. You cannot compare a music lesson delivered by a teacher who has a passion for singing or playing a musical instrument with one given by a teacher who has no interest in the subject. Similarly with RE, there is an enormous difference and resulting impact on pupils between teaching “what others do” as opposed to “what we practise”.
There is a popular misconception that pupils in state-maintained faith schools study in “splendid isolation” and are unaware of the world around them. This is not the case.
Firstly, most of these schools contain members of staff who are of another or no faith. Secondly, pupils in faith schools often attend sports clubs and other activities out of school with other children. Thirdly, faith schools take their civic and communal responsibilities extremely seriously.
In Jewish schools in which I have worked over the past 38 years, we have raised funds for many national good causes such as the Poppy Appeal, Barnado’s, the British Heart Foundation and cancer charities as well as a variety of international causes. There have been arrangements for reciprocal visits to local schools and frequent participation in local civic events.
The often-voiced opinion that educating children of different backgrounds alongside each other will automatically result in more cohesion is by no means universally accepted. For example, research by Barry Troyna and Richard Hatcher, authors of Racism in Children’s Lives, found significant degrees of racism in mixed primary schools, while Geoffrey Short, in an article in the British Journal of Religious Education, quotes views that mixed schools can aggravate racial or ethical tensions.
On the contrary, many believe that having a strong and confident self-identity will facilitate tolerance and respect for others. A report by David Jesson for the Archbishops’ Council’s education division found that faith schools gained higher scores from Ofsted for community cohesion than did community schools. Many faith schools are multi-racial and draw pupils from a wide catchment area and a broad socio-economic range whereas many local mainstream schools are, due to the segregated nature of their catchment areas, predominantly single-race and far less diverse.
A charge sometimes levelled against faith schools is they “indoctrinate” children. Surely education, by its nature, instils values into children? As parents, we train our children from infancy that it is “wrong” to steal — we do not wait for them to make a “lifestyle choice” when they reach adulthood regarding the rights and wrongs of theft.
Similarly, all schools will promote values such as discipline, consideration for others, honesty and a strong work ethic without waiting to see whether pupils will choose these for themselves. Faith schools incorporate additional religious values, cultural awareness and academic knowledge to give an extra dimension to their pupils’ understanding of the world.
While faith schools utilise tax-payers money, parents of pupils who attend the 7,000 maintained faith schools in the UK would argue that they are also taxpayers and voters. Faith communities and parents have to raise 10 per cent of capital costs for voluntary-aided schools — a substantial sum, unlike mainstream community schools, which are 100 per cent funded. They could argue that they are actually subsidising the state.
In my own research with 450 headteachers of voluntary-aided faith schools across the country (10 per cent of all such schools at the time), the special ethos of such schools was particularly evident as a result of faith, shared values between home and school and being part of, and contributing to, the wider community. In an increasingly secularised society in which RE is being marginalised, state-maintained faith schools give pupils self-esteem and confidence in their own beliefs so that they can face the world with tolerance and strength and play a full part in wider society respecting everyone — of all faiths or none.
Dr Shaw is the headteacher of Hasmonean Primary School in Hendon