Tuesday, 2 February 2010

You gotta have faith

Imagine it is Sunday morning. Although you do not describe yourself as religious you decide to go to Church. As you walk to the Church (which is just five minutes from your house) you reflect on the fact that you are lucky that the Vicar (based on your sporadic visits) seems to share your values and his sermons include messages that make sense to you – except for the God part. Just as you are about to take a seat in one of the pews near the back, a Church warden taps you on the shoulder and says, “Sorry, you can’t sit there.” You apologise, thinking he must be saving the seat for someone and move towards one of the few remaining free spaces. You are about to take a seat when the Church warden appears again and says, “I’m really sorry about this but you can’t sit there either. In fact, you won’t be able to join us for the service today; we are full and we give priority to regular church-goers.” You walk out of the Church feeling slightly bewildered and let down and head for the Church down the road. You attend the service but don’t think much of the sermon and the building is cold and depressing.

It is hard to imagine a church treating people in this way isn’t it? Well, that is exactly how faith groups treat non-religious children applying to attend the schools they run when they give preference to members of their faith. If the Tories come into power, it is likely faith groups will be given the opportunity to run an increasing number of schools. David Cameron last week stated that “faith schools are an important part of our system, I support them and I would like if anything to see them grow.” His backing of faith schools is not surprising; it is consistent with the Conservative Party 2007 schools policy paper and their recent draft education manifesto in which they pledge to ensure barriers are “cleared away so there can be a significant increase in the number of new schools” and say these would be “set up and run by existing educational providers [including faith groups], charities, trusts, voluntary groups, philanthropists and co-operatives”.

The problem for Cameron is that, if he allows an increase in the number of faith schools without making an important amendment to the admissions code, he will seriously undermine the Tories’ stated wish for “every child to benefit from our reforms” because faith schools do not give “every child” a fair chance of being admitted. According to the code faith schools can, if oversubscribed (and very many of them are), “use faith-based oversubscription criteria in order to give higher priority in admissions to children who are members of, or who practise, their faith or denomination”. They can, for instance, ask for a letter from the local Church/ Mosque/ Synagogue, providing evidence that the child in question worships there regularly, or give priority to children who have been baptised. Non-religious families are, therefore, at a significant disadvantage in trying to secure a place at faith schools. Even if a particular school decides to set oversubscription criteria that allocates only a few places based on faith criteria, the non-religious are still discriminated against.

The single faith group that runs the largest number of faith schools in England is the Church of England which runs 25.3% of all state primary schools - that's 4,470 schools – and 5.8% of all state secondary schools - 220 schools. These numbers are rising and, as the C of E Board of Education schools strategy for 2007-11 makes clear, they are looking “for opportunities to increase the number of [C of E] secondary schools and academies”. David Cameron will be pleased, especially as a real concern for the “children from disadvantaged backgrounds” mentioned in his manifesto, comes across in the strategy:

“[The] Board of Education see Church of England schools as both distinctively Christian and inclusive communities.’ The distinctive and inclusive Christian character of a school leads directly to access for all: welcoming children and young people of all denominations and faiths and none, from all ethnic and social groups, with a bias to the disadvantaged and the poor, with a wide range of learning ability and with many types of physical ability, and regardless of family situation.”

The sort of school ethos that this passage suggests develop in Church schools is exactly why they are popular with parents. As Cameron argued last week, “faith organisations bring often a sort of culture and ethos to a school that can help it improve.” This is all well and good but when Church schools state on their websites and in brochures (as they very often do) some variation of: ‘We are a diverse school with a strong Christian ethos. We welcome pupils of all faiths and none’, they really need, in order to be accurate, to add in brackets, ‘(but we welcome Christians a bit more than others even if they are disadvantaged).’

The Conservatives say they want to offer all children, regardless of background, the same educational choices that are currently only available to the wealthy. A good way to show they are serious would be to pledge to amend the Admissions Code so that if and when more faith schools are started all children, regardless of whether they are religious or not, will have an equal opportunity to get into their first choice school.


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  3. And another thing! just to correct a slightly misleading point in your posting.

    Whilst it is true that roughly a quarter of state primary schools and one twentieth of state secondary schools in England are C of E foundations, roughly two thirds of those have voluntary controlled (VC) status. VC schools have no say over their admissions policies and the policy is set by the local authority nearly always using the same criteria as for its community schools.

    So if there is 'a problem', let's not over-state the problem - at least as far as the C of E is concerned. And furthermore it is not necessarily the case that those schools who do set their own admissions policies (voluntary aided, foundation, academies) are always oversubscribed.

    By following the course of action you advocate (which logically would have to be followed through to eliminate some or all of the other discriminatory criteria I referred to), thereby eradicating what you would call unfair discrimination (as opposed to fair discrimination), you would also be setting up a (possibly) unintended chain of consequences which would be more damaging and destructive of features of a liberal, democratic, diverse society.

  4. So let's prevent all faith schools from having admission criteria which give preference to those from their particular faith back ground and then 'all children will have an equal opportunity to get into their first choice school.' or will they?

    Imagine you are a child wanting to go to a high-achieving school in a prosperous, owner-occupier part of town and you live in the social housing estate two miles away. You may well be denied entry because you do not live less than a mile away. In effect that school discriminates in favour of those with wealth and against those who cannot afford the price of housing near to the school. Children do not have equal chances of accessing that school.

    Imagine you are first-born child wanting to go to a high-achieving school which is so popular that it fills up nearly all its places with the siblings of children already at the school. Children do not have equal chances of accessing that school.

    Imagine you are a boy wanting to go to a high-achieving girls only school....

    Imagine you are a child with an intelligence quotient of say 109 or below and the cut-off point for entry to the grammar school is 110...

    Imagine you are a child without musical aptitude and you wish to go to a high-achieving specialist performing arts school - you have a less than equal chance of attending that school than does a child with a musical aptitude (and possibly one whose family has been able to support and encourage him/her with music lessons)

    Which of these unfair criteria would you also hope the 'Government' will outlaw whilst tightening up the Admission Code to deal with the faith schools?

    The obvious fact is that in a situation where parents are allowed to express preferences for a school, the moment a school is over-subscribed, then some kind of discriminatory criteria kick in and these are not intrinsically fairer than the criteria used by over-subscribed church/religious schools.

    There are two 'solutions' to this (although there may be others). One is to negate all parental preferences and get the state to allocate children to schools using some system or other.

    The other solution is to have entirely random selection for all oversubscribed schools, so that the allocation of a child to a school and vice-versa is entirely a chance allocation not dependent in any way on a child's background, intelligence, address, aptitude etc.

    Which solution would you advocate - or is there another one?

    These 'solutions' (particularly random selection) might make a reality of the aspiration that all children have an equal chance of attending the school of their choice but fulfilling that aspiration would cut across a number of other important principles and values in a democratic, liberal society where there is a range of beliefs and values with no absolute consensus.

    One longstanding national and international principle which can be at variance with the 'equal access to schools' principle relates to parental rights (see 1944 Education Act and Human Rights Charter) Broadly these state that provided the resources required are not unreasonable parents have a legal right to have their children educated in accordance with their philosophical and religious beliefs.

    If that is the case and if through history or contemporary endeavour bodies such as churches have established schools which have a particular belief position and if more people want to go to those schools than are places, then it is surely not entirely unreasonable or unfair to allow those schools (and those parents) to have admissions criteria which give criteria to those of that belief position? The fact that some people abuse that or are hypocritical does not negate the principle.

    PS This should have been read before the other comment!