Wednesday, 12 December 2007

We want good schools not god schools

I want to look at the issue of faith schools, specifically as they exist in the UK.

First of all the term "faith school" is rather vague. A Government press release, published in the Guardian, states that:

Schools with a religious character play an integral part in the publicly funded school system and in society.

  • Around a third of all maintained schools have a religious character, approximately 6,850 schools from a total of nearly 21,000. Around 600 are secondary schools with the remainder being primary schools. The great majority are Church of England and Roman Catholic.
  • The remainder comprise of 37 Jewish schools; seven Muslim schools; two Sikh schools; one Greek Orthodox and one Seventh Day Adventist school.
  • A further 13 faith schools have been approved to open over the next two years. They include one Jewish, three Muslim and one Sikh, two Church of England and two Church of England/Methodist.
  • Of the 83 Academies now open, 27 have a faith designation - 16 are non-denominational Christian, eight Church of England, two Catholic and one Anglican/Roman Catholic.
  • All maintained schools and academies, including those with a religious character, must act in accordance with the Admissions Code, a system where all children, regardless of their background, have a fair opportunity of gaining a place at the school they want to attend. The law rules out interviewing and prevents the new introduction of selection by ability. Only when a faith school is oversubscribed can it start to give priority to pupils who practice their faith or denomination.
  • Many faith schools choose to give some of their places to children of no faith or other faiths. The Church of England has announced that at least 25% of places in their new schools will be available as community places.
  • All future faith academies, unless directly replacing a faith school, will give priority to at least 50% of places to pupils from other faiths or no faith.
  • All maintained schools, including those with a religious character, must teach the national curriculum.
  • Faith schools are often highly diverse. At secondary schools, 21% of children in faith schools have a minority ethnic background compared to 17% at schools without a religious character. At primary schools, 18% of children in faith schools have a minority ethnic background compared to 24% at primary schools without a religious character.
  • All schools now have a duty to promote community cohesion.
I will not analyse this release but there are some dubious points - most obviously how is the "duty to promote social cohesion" monitored and managed. It would be easier if they they did not exist to enable this duty...Furthermore, I am dubious of the term faith school. I quite like sect school as this paints a less positive picture of the supposed claims of faith schools, but then this could be construed as biased, in one way, as is faith school - given its positive (unjustified) view in our society - is the other way. I have used god school in the title for the obvious alliteration there but ideally would like a neutral term to describe these schools, not biased either way. Still I think god school is closer than both faith and sect schools, but this is not a major point. Anyway god school does pretty much apply to all the schools listed above, although if there were any buddhist schools then this would be a more questionable label - buddhists being non-theists of course!

Now there seem to be five main arguments against god schools:
  1. They are divisive and by their existence support an "us versus them" mentality - that is they are or can be sectarian.
  2. They are unfair and an example of a double standard - all taxpayers - the majority of whom are irreligious, if not agnostic or atheist - are forced to support these schools to the benefit of a minority.
  3. Contrary to widely held beliefs they provide no academic advantage over secular (non-god and I do not mean atheist) state schools.
  4. Contrary to many assertions to the contrary they provide no "moral" advantage over secular state schools
  5. They are a form of hidden selection in a supposed selection free state system.
Argument (1) is very popular but it is difficult to find substantive empirical evidence of this in UK. There certainly is some from the history of the troubles in Northern Ireland and presumably from other countries historically in the past. I think it very plausible to make this case but wish I could find better empirical research to support it. A counter example from jumping from such a plausible position is what happened to me personally after the 7/7 bombings in London. I received a number of emails about using that as an opportunity to campaign against faith schools but I asked the reasonable question as to which schools the bombers had attended? It was later established that they all attended secular state schools! This is not an argument against this point but rather to emphasize not to jump to hasty conclusions. I will explore this further in future post. Lets proceed.

Argument (2) is blatantly true given the data on church goers being less than 10% of the UK population and that is includes both those who attend maybe only once in a year - for, say, a funeral, baptism, confirmation, bar mitzva or wedding - and those who attend in order to qualify for a place at a god school too!. Of course many other minorities can and indeed good get support locally and nationally, and it is claimed, for the benefit of all. There are probably disputes between various interests on all these aids to minorities too, as anyone could atest by regularly reading a variety of newspapers. However we are focused on education here and this counter-argument is weaker as there are no other schools supporting those other kinds of minority interests and needs - Academy schools might change this though - but then that would be a criticism of Academy schools in particular. Still whilst correct I think we can make a better argument and one that deals with the specific popular mis-conceptions in the UK.

Argument (3) has been understood - by those who are interested - for a while but received empirical confirmation after the LSE report "Faith Primary Schools: better schools or better pupils?" . Simplistically one can find deviations from the expected amount of free school meals and free transport and once the still problematic - they have been updated four times since they started - school league tables are normalised for this effect, god schools perform academically no better than equivalent secular state schools. Indeed it is a form of hidden selection which we will look at below.

Argument (4) is not often stated to the contrary of the typical claims of god schools to promote a "moral ethos" or equivalent, which by implication is that this is not done and/or is better than that performed by secular state schools (the point above about the 7/7 bombers not withstanding but to avoid any diversions - simplistically what are the implications of enforced religious assemblies on encouraging sectarian divisions?). No it is easy enough (too easy) to make such an assertion but is there data to back this up or is it unsubstantiated? On the one hand there are the numerous examples today (lets not confuse the issues with past actions) of immoral positions, a very recent one being the Churches in this country wanting to reserve the right to retain their bigotry over gay adoptions. On the other hand it has been difficult enough to evaluate schools academic performance as the school league tables and their revisions have shown. Is the government or anyone collecting such statistics here, on social ill health - abortions, pregnancies, drug taking, teen crime and correlating it with different schools? Still here we can go broader afield and note the studies that show higher levels of social ill health are correlated with higher religious attendance both between countries and within country's states and counties. Of course, a correlation is not a causation but the onus on such claims in god schools is to show otherwise. However lacking data we only have rhetoric and attacking god schools on this basis, whilst I think a good analysis can be made will difficult as it expands beyond education per se to the lack of the substance behind the moral claims of religion in general. Can we keep the focus on education?

This brings us to argument (5) and, as argument (3) showed, there is indeed hidden selection in god schools. So why make it a separate argument? Well argument (3) shows there is a mis-perception of the academic excellence of god school, that it is based on hidden selection. Argument (5) makes this the focus of a criticism of god schools. That is they perform a form of hidden selection and, this is in addition to just being biased towards members of their own faith, which is also related to argument (2) (that this is unfair to other taxpayers). But this is where many critics go astray. In this country there has been a political agenda to avoid selection on the basis of ability. However many parents do not like this, and seek out schools to the best of their resources that do select for the quality of their pupils. They are presented with three options - a) Fee paying public schools b) Living in the right postcode c) Getting their child into a god school. We are focused on (c) here but the attempts to achieve (a) and (b) support this developing point. God schools are typically over-subscribed compared to secular state schools (there are quite a few of exceptions of course). So the parents who are able too, generally of a higher socio-economic background than their competitors are better able to spend the time and do what is required - including reluctant church attendance and so on - to get their children into a school which is full of other parents who have done the same thing. The benefit to all who can achieve this - and this is not to assume nor disparage the many parents, those who also deeply care about their children's education, whose children go to secular state schools, just because of location or lack of parental time and so on - is that these children are more likely to surrounded by children who have a supportive and encouraging home background. As a result, the teachers may not be any better than those in equivalent secular state schools but find it easier to teach this selected and qualified group of pupils and the pupils themselves operate in a more "positive" peer group to achieve better academic performance. And this is what many parents want. The fact that is is due to getting their children into a god school is really irrelevant to them, indeed they may despise what they have to do to achieve this. (This point, albeit anecdotal, applies to 100% of the parents that I know).

The issue is that many parents, by hook and by crook, will want to get their children into a school that selects it pupils. And that is it. If we want to address the issue of god schools we need to instead focus on what makes a good school and the quality of the pupil intake is a very big factor but there are, of course, others. The politics of selection and the current imposed politically biased selection-free system, which god schools demonstrates is broken, is what needs to be addressed. I am not suggesting a specific solution but that a solution will exist in this area and will, as a significant side effect, be the best way to deal with the anachronistic problem of god schools in the 21st century. Only by breaking the perception that god schools are good schools can we do this. And only by working out how to build a network of good schools which will satisfy parents need for selection can this be done. Once the relationship between hidden selection and god schools is broken and a viable and more equitable solution proposed then the arguments for god schools will dissolve away being left with the small - less than 10% of parents? - arguing for god schools, then a good argument could be that such elements of education can be better done in churches, mosques, temples and synagogues. No-one will be denied the opportunity to provide religious instruction (whether children should be exposed to this is another issue) and no-one will be required to unfairly fund the special needs of such minorities.

So lets focus the debate on what it is to make a good school. We want good schools not god schools.

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