Planned changes to the rules about faith schools haven't made huge headlines - in fact the announcement was slipped out under the cover of the more obviously controversial grammar school proposal. You may not even know that the UK Government is scrapping a rule that new faith centred free schools have to allow at least some people of other faiths in. Even if you do, it may not sound like a big deal.
When you think "faith schools" you may think of a scattered few Muslim Schools or Jewish Schools - if these aren't religions you follow personally, you might not be too bothered about trying and send your child to one. But a full third of state-funded schools in the UK are faith schools - 68% of those Church of England and 30% Catholic.
Whether you have school-age kids or not, whether you have a faith or not, there are two reasons this might matter to you.
- Because fostering inclusion, diversity and empathy should be priorities, especially right now.
- Because children shouldn't be deprived of a quality education because of the personal beliefs of their parents.
Isn't now a time when a united society matters more than ever?
In a Brexit/Trump era tensions and fears are running high. Exactly when promoting inclusion, respecting diversity and fostering empathy should be national priorities, the UK Government is taking a dangerous swerve towards damaging segregation - supposedly to boost social mobility, but that has been strongly contested. If you've not quite had "enough of experts" yet, integration expert Professor Ted Cantle has written powerfully about why this is a big, damaging deal. Also, the Casey Review into "integration and opportunity in isolated and deprived communities" has this month specifically recommended "more integrated schools."
Segregation is damaging for everyone. It's damaging for the minorities who could find themselves excluded from the best schools, but also for the kids with parents of the "right" faith. Wouldn't every child benefit from mixing with a variety of children from a variety of backgrounds? But maybe just as crucially, when we talk of selection based on faith, it has nothing to do with the 5 year old child whose education is at stake. Their future hangs on the personal beliefs of their parents.
Should a child be punished for their parents' beliefs or non-belief?
I happen to be an atheist, in a rural area, where all the surrounding primary schools are CofE. My daughter may well grow up to be religious, but she certainly doesn't know that at 5. At the moment existing faith schools have a wide variety of entry policies, but if the direction the government is moving in continues, where does that lead?
Would our daughter be denied attending not only a good school, but the local school, because of OUR religion, or lack thereof? A child automatically barred from a state-funded school based on her parent's personal choice? I have always assumed social care in the UK is geared towards protecting children from the actions and choices of their parents, and defending them against discrimination. Why would that be any different in their access to state-funded education?
The last census showed the number of people in the UK with 'no religion' growing fast, but the best performing, sometimes only, local schools are often church schools. If they can select pupils entirely based on a religion you don't adhere to, what are your choices?
To compromise quality, to travel or to lie?
In an area with plenty of schools, you might simply chose a less well-performing school, in a rural area you could travel, and keep travelling, until you hit some distant appropriate school, or you could suck up the religion and just lie about your personal beliefs on the application form.
And plenty of people already do. I would be amazed to hear of any middle-class parent who knew no-one in their peer group that feigned or exaggerated a religious belief to secure the best school place - dragging kids to church throughout their 4th year to prove commitment to a religion they, at best, don't outrightly reject.
This already results in an unnatural skew towards those with the time, resources and determination to put in this kind of effort - a luxury many less advantaged families can't afford, and an option not easily available to people in every culture or ethnic group.
Is this the direction we want for British education?
In my personal utopia there would be no crossover between religion and education at all, but surely, at the very least, whatever their parent's culture, ethnicity, income, beliefs or character, all children should have a fair chance to attend the best school in their area without discrimination.