A liberal case for faith schools

At the age of 11 I had a choice. I could either attend a Catholic secondary school or a secondary school without a religious character. I chose the Catholic secondary school. This school, Notre Dame, had a catchment area covering half the city of Sheffield. This meant that there were pupils from affluent and less-affluent areas, from the inner city and the suburbs and from the families of many nationalities. I had classmates who were Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, Muslim and of no-faith at all. Had I chosen the non-Catholic school, all of my fellow pupils would have lived in the same neighbourhood and would been almost uniformly white-British.

My experience was not an exceptional one because Catholic schools are diverse. They have more pupils from deprived neighbourhoods, one third of the pupils attending Catholic schools are not Catholic and the percentage of black and minority ethnic pupils in Catholic schools is significantly higher than in non-faith schools. They are also more likely to have an Ofsted grade of good or outstanding. Not only that, Church schools provide a rounded education with a strong emphasis on the social and moral development of everyone, helping each person to recognise the importance of being active in their communities.

Critics of faith school frequently argue that allowing faith to be used as an admissions criterion is discriminatory and that everyone should be able to study at faith schools. An obvious response is that many pupils in Church schools do not share the faith of the school they attend. For example, there are over 26,000 Muslim pupils attending Catholic schools in England and Wales. It is important to remember that the Church provided the land, buildings and ongoing financial support for Church schools. Is it liberal to argue that central government should insist on one set of admissions rules for every school, of whatever type, in every circumstance without faith communities having a say?

Another crucial point is that every oversubscribed school must discriminate and decide who gets a place and who does not. If faith is not included as an admissions criterion, then geography is king. If you live near enough to the popular school, then you are in. In such a situation, it is those with the highest incomes and wealth who have the most choice – they can buy homes in the right catchment area. I do not see how transferring choice and opportunity to the richest and wealthiest is progressive.

I support faith schools because of my liberalism, not despite it. I welcome the diversity they bring to our education system. I like the fact that they are socially and racially diverse and that disadvantaged students do especially well in Catholic schools. It is a good thing that they focus on a rounded education and not just exam results.

Ultimately, as a liberal, I want schools to have freedoms and not to insist on a one-size-fits-all rule from Whitehall that would result in more opportunities for the rich and fewer for poorer families.

* Peter Taylor is the Liberal Democrat Elected Mayor of Watford.

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  • James Baillie 16th Mar '17 - 2:07pm

    Some of the arguments here just don’t logically hang together; I’d rather hoped for a better defence of this position. The fact that “many” church school attendees are not of the school’s faith has absolutely no logical bearing whatsoever on whether reserving some places for selection by faith is discriminatory. Nor is it reasonable or sensible to argue that, because geographical selection may be problematic, it is therefore preferable to utilise whatever set of arbitrary religio-moral characteristics or beliefs a child’s parents have adopted as a replacement criterion. Why would it be right, if indeed Catholic schools perform better as claimed here, that people of that faith should have better educational opportunities thanks to faith based school selection?

    The argument that this is all about being against government imposition rather misses the fact that Catholic schools are essentially state funded – the church provides the land, buildings, and 10% of capital costs, the state provides the remaining 90% of capital costs and 100% of running costs. The state has a duty to stand against discrimination especially in its own operations, and therefore a duty to end faith based school selection procedures. Whatever arguments there may be for trying to diversify school populations, or increase opportunity, the argument here rather amounts to “X is bad, Y is not X, therefore we must do Y”, rather than making a decent attempt to argue the principles of the issue. Which, as I say, is a pity; I hope that the conference debate will get closer to the heart of the issues.

  • Duncan Stott 16th Mar '17 - 2:11pm

    I also went to a faith school. It was a Church of England school in the middle of Oldham. It was a vehicle for middle class parents to game the system and create an enclave for their children away from poorer kids. It also segregated the children from Muslim backgrounds from us. Oldham had race riots in 2001 – I can’t see how this kind of segregation helps matters.

    My school was not alone: the Fair Admissions campaign’s map shows how releigiously selective schools have a lower intake of pupils on free school meals than the area they serve, suggesting selection is happening on socio-economic grounds.

    It is pure discrimination to allow schools to select their intake on the basis of faith background. It goes against all our values: the children who are blocked from attending a school lose liberty, the school’s treatment of different faiths creates inequality and it is lousy for cohesion of our communities.

    There is however a liberal argument for allowing schools to have a faith ethos so that parents can choose the type of school environment they would like for their child. Children with (say) atheist parents could still choose to send their children to a (say) Catholic school if they liked other things about the school (it’s next door to their house, it’s a good school for teaching a particular subject etc.)

    You are correct in saying that there are also problems with selection based purely on geography. House prices are significantly higher when they are in the catchment area of a good state school, which also creates socio-economic segregation. The only fair way to resolve this is to use lotteries to select from over-subscribed schools (with mitigating rules for applicants who already have a sibling attending the school).

  • There is a CoE secondary in my school. Parents spend literally half a decade of sundays pretending to worship to get their kids in. Imagine if places were earned some other way. Perhaps helping in a hospice or tidying up the community’s environment. The current system is broken and insane

  • *in my town

  • Robert Davies 16th Mar '17 - 4:43pm

    Of course young people should be taught about religion and it they go on to make the decision to adopt a religious belief, fine — but they should not be force-fed religious views before they have developed the critical faculties required to understand and evaluate what they are being taught. And the LibDems should certainly not support religious indoctrination being funded by the state, as it is at faith schools.

  • Paul Pettinger 16th Mar '17 - 4:46pm

    It is not the case that religious selection helps poor families. Religiously selective faith schools (including Catholic ones, see: http://fairadmissions.org.uk/catholic-schools-and-the-income-deprivation-affecting-children-index/) are found to admit significantly fewer pupils from deprived backgrounds than would be expected from admitting local children. In contrast, non-religiously selective faith schools are found to admit intakes that broadly reflect the socio-economic balance of their local area.

    It is also not the case that if a faith school stops selecting pupils by faith that it has to select by distance (and so trigger selection by house price instead). There are many other ways that a school could select its pupils if it wanted to reduce or avoid covert socio-economic selection (such as operating a catchment area, using banding or random allocation, showing priority to children entitled to free school meals, or any mixture of these measures).

    Most state funded faith schools in other developed countries are not permitted to select pupils by faith. Last year the Catholic International Education Office issued a statement setting out an inclusive and none proselytizing mission for its schools. It defined a Catholic school as:

    “• A school that joins forces with other bodies of formal and informal education at local and national level for the benefit of local populations, young and old, without any discrimination. …
    • Heads of institutions recruited according to quality based criteria …
    • A non-discriminatory school, open to all, especially the poorest.
    • A school that has to deploy in the outskirts, deep within slums
    • A school that provides facilities for students with special needs …
    In conclusion, the Catholic school is anything but a communitarian school. It is open to all … It must constantly promote intercultural and interreligious dialogue, if it is to continue its mission. This is in any case a motto of the OIEC, all over the world.”

    This is an inclusive and generous statement, which should be commended to Catholic Education authorities in England and Wales.

  • My daughter had a choice of primary schools: CofE, CofE, CofE, or Catholic. Every one of them spent teaching time on the religion. They were quite happy to accept pupils from families of other religions, or non religious families. Those children still got taught about God in lessons.

    Until someone can convince me of the liberal case for forcing children to be indoctrinated into a religion neither they not their parents subscribe to, I will never support faith schools.

  • Eddie Sammon 16th Mar '17 - 9:07pm

    There’s far too many faith schools. I accept that they offer more choice, but why so many? Most of us don’t take religion very seriously, or even seriously at all.


  • It’s one of those difficult liberal balances. On the one hand you don’t want to interfere too much with the rights of parents on the other religion can be so illiberal.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 16th Mar '17 - 10:56pm

    Peter makes a good case for faith schools , but he has not convinced some on here.

    I am particularly sorry to see the expressions of distaste from such as the liberal and Liberal Jennie.

    How can anybody who is a Liberal say the sorts of things above ?

    Faith schools, so called do not indoctrinate.They teach. 99%of the time they teach everything bar religion.

    The Catholic schools I went to taught religion more as a discussion much of the time.They were good, decent multiracial .The teaching denominations of the Catholic church have a noble history in this country , throughout the twentieth century.

    Those who do not want their children to be taught it can choose a different school

    Choice is what a free society is about. The choice of a mix of schools, most taking pupils from many backgrounds, more choice of more than one kind of anything should be at the heart of Liberalism.

  • Michael, Although your two points may well be true, I have heard and on one occasion seen similar experiences in non-faith schools. Some teachers listen to pupils, while others do not. Some schools look to do anything to avoid excluding bullies, and “Is it your fault for complaining is a standard approach by managers in many fields when a problem is brought to them. CBT has a lot to answer for in this area.

    All in all, your points are more a sad indictment of our education system as a whole, not of faith schools in particular.

  • Ahhh I see Lorenzo is in “erasing other people’s experiences” mode. It actually happened to my actual daughter. Just because it didn’t happen to you does not mean it didn’t happen to other people.

    How about the LGBT people whose teachers tell them they are going to hell? Is that ok, or are you going to deny that happens too?

  • clive english 17th Mar '17 - 7:39am

    whilst I would not consider it a defence of faith schools per se I would observe that homophobic behaviour by teachers and a total refusal to confront bullies is far from absent in state schools. My own nephew was heavily bullied and the state school wanted to exclude him not the bullies. My sister was seen as an annoyance for trying to get the school to take its duty of care seriously, well to be fair the governors were very supportive when they found out. The Head and the staff not one little tiny bit.

  • No

  • Clive: yes, fair point.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 17th Mar '17 - 9:17am

    Some people who have commented here have very firmly held views, both for and against, based on their own experiences. It is sad that the discussion has become acrimonious, and I feel rather hesitant to comment myself, for fear of hurting anyone’s feelings.
    Could I just point out that freedom of religion, and freedom of individual choice, are important liberal principles? It surely follows that parents and children should be able to choose a faith school if they wish to. After all, this choice is available to those who are able to pay independent school fees, so surely the choice should be available in the state system too.
    Freedom of religion should also mean the right to freedom *from* religion. Parents and children should never be in a situation in which the only choices available to them are faith schools, and it was unacceptable that Jennie and her daughter found themselves in this situation. Just as parents and children should have the right to choose a faith school education if they wish, there should also be an absolute right to choose a non faith school.
    The motion to be discussed at Conference seems to see it as discriminatory if schools are allowed to use religion as part of their selection procedure. But if a faith school is over-subscribed, surely it is fair that priority is given to parents and children who have chosen it specifically because it is a faith school? It would not seem fair if parents and children were denied the faith school place that was important to them for faith reasons, while the place was given instead to parents and children who had no interest in the faith aspect of the school. This is not about discrimination, but about freedom of religion and of choice.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 17th Mar '17 - 1:27pm

    Jennie and with reference to Michael

    You respond to a point made in sorrow at people’s reactions by piling on insult and accusations.

    I did not deny what happened to you . Or actually your daughter. I do not interpret it as indoctrination any more than Tim Farron or a political leader is doing that by making a speech! I do not think to teach about God in a school run by liberal minded teachers , from a religious perspective or not , is so awful.I do think it is awful to dislike it so much but be gung ho in support of a party leader who is an evangelical Christian, but so flippant to a fellow member who has never shown anything but respect , and is not a practising evangelical Christian , but an open minded and tolerant person trying to encourage a range of schools or other public services !

    I do not think anyone should be sending their children to schools they or their children don’t want.

    I do not think that my points in favour of wider choices would mean anybody would feel unable to be pleased with their choice of school, and only liberal religious attitudes would or could be taught, certainly nobody should teach such prejudiced ideas expressed.

    But , sorry, assembly and all things bright and beautiful is acceptable in a Christian or other oriented similar context !

  • Peter Martin 18th Mar '17 - 7:24am

    ” It is important to remember that the Church provided the land… ”

    Wasn’t that provided by God ?

  • Carol Linton 18th Mar '17 - 1:49pm

    I have no problem with parents choosing faith schools, if the school provides an education and social environment preparing the children for life in Britain.
    We have to consider minority faith schools imposed by the Department of Education against the wishes of the local education authority and residents. Local children are given no choice about going to the school with its different social environment and uncommon taught language. Transport is provided from boroughs with large populations of that faith (5 miles or more away), but not from local villages (less than 3 miles away but down narrow lanes with no pavements or speed limits).

  • Peter Watson 20th Mar '17 - 12:19pm

    After the last two Lib Dem conferences, Lib Dem policy:
    “Ensures that selection in admissions on the basis of religion or belief to state-funded schools is phased out over up to six years.”
    “Calls on the government to abandon the selection by ability and social separation of young people, into different schools.”

    In the local elections in May this is probably more relevant than Brexit, so will Lib Dem candidates be emphasising these policies for schools on the doorstep in the run-up to those local elections, or trying not to draw attention to them?

    (Apologies for posting this in two parallel threads)

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