Why faith schools' fairy dust and 'British values' will not heal a divided society

In the several years I spent reporting on RE and faith schools, there was one word that irritated me far more than any other. It wasn’t “God” (a fine woman) or “praying” (why not?) or even that mysterious phrase “broadly Christian worship”. It was “ethos”. Those in faith-based education are often keen to refer to this whenever they are called to justify their existence – and suggest that the education they offer is, essentially, superior to schools without that faith.
“Parents love the ‘ethos’ of the school”, a Catholic school headteacher told me. And, attempting to appear inclusive, added “even Muslims want to come here because they share that ethos”.
What ethos exactly is that? I would wonder. Daily prayers? Self discipline? Selflessness? Giving £100 to Shelter at Christmas? Insisting that families prove their adherence to a certain religion in the event of over-subscription? They speak as if faith schools add an extra layer of special fairy dust, as if they are the choice of a superior form of human. Their product, they are essentially suggesting, is better to that of other schools. It’s all about the “ethos”. The undertone is that secular schools are bereft of a moral compass, lack direction, discipline or a sense of purpose.
And parents, it seems, have embraced the brand – many faith schools are extremely successful and popular, with the sharp-elbowed going to great lengths to prove they deserve admission. The middle classes, in particular, target them like Boden-sponsored missiles and house prices in their area rise accordingly. The schools flourish as a result. Was it God or the John Lewis account that did it?
Research by the Education Policy Institute this week suggests that faith schools take a higher-than-average proportion of pupils with good test results at the end of primary school. Over all, they also educate fewer pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds or with special needs. It all seems a little at odds with what one might call…the ethos, even if it is not the fault of the schools themselves.
All this comes as the government is preparing to lift the cap on the proportion of pupils any new schools can admit on the grounds of faith alone (currently 50 per cent). This move will allow the Catholics to take on new academies – as bishops have so far insisted they cannot run schools if there is a chance they would have to turn away a Catholic child.
Faith free schools – such as the new all-girls Muslim school near me (non-Muslims welcome!) have proved popular with parents, but they are bad for society and instil pupils with a strong sense of their difference, rather than belonging to a wider picture.
Combined with plans for increased levels of selection-by-ability in the system and the majority of schools becoming academies, we are heading for a destructive mix of isolationism and increased inequality.
Dame Louise Casey's report on the integration of minorities this morning said that Britain is an increasingly segregated society - and suggested more teaching of "British values" in schools to iron this out. But schools already do this...and it is nothing more than a sticking plaster for a school system that is becoming more and more divided and fragmented.
Faith schools –whatever religion they promote - may be “good” and provide a great education to many thousands of children but secular schools can work just as well. Schools run on religious grounds - despite their claims of ethnic diversity - can only deepen the divisions in our society. It is the opposite of what a good education system should attempt to do.


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