Faith Schools and the ABCs of Tolerance

In Britain, the Debate Rages Over Public Support for Private Education

LONDON, APRIL 13, 2002 ( The debate over public funding for private religious schools in Britain has intensified in recent months. Some critics denounce the so-called faith schools as promoting intolerance and divisions within society.

The key issues are similar to those heard in the debates over vouchers in the United States. Should government funds support religious-based institutions? And, is secular instruction more appropriate than religious in a pluralistic world?

Despite their critics, faith schools remain popular with the general public, at least judging by the demand for places. According a report published Nov. 23 by the Times newspaper, there are a staggering 160 applications for every opening in Church-of-England classrooms.

In reaction to this situation, the Anglican church announced it is planning to build as many as 20 more schools. Another 20 faith schools, including Islamic, Seventh-day Adventist and Jewish institutions, are in the works, the Times noted.

As of November, the United Kingdom had a total of 6,928 faith schools (6,346 primary and 582 secondary). The majority are Anglican (4,696), followed by Catholic schools (2,088). According to data published Dec. 12 by the Telegraph newspaper, Anglican and Catholic primary schools represent 30% of the total. Yet they account for 60% of the 179 schools that achieved a perfect score in last year´s national curriculum tests.

“Bin Laden academies”

Criticism of faith schools has shown just how deep the anti-religious sentiment in secular British society runs. One prominent critic is Oxford professor Richard Dawkins. In an open letter to the government published Dec. 30 by the Observer newspaper, Dawkins accused parents of “hereditary presumption” in wishing to predetermine the religious choices of their children.

He derided faith schools as being “segregated” and responsible for reinforcing “those badges of mental apartheid” because “In their separate schools, children are separately taught mutually incompatible beliefs.” Dawkins termed the schools as “dangerous,” and went on to attack the credentials of those supporting them. For good measure, he added: “I do not believe it is possible to mount a decent defence against my charge.” His letter finished by saying “to persist with financing segregated religion in sectarian schools is obstinate madness.”

No less extreme was the position taken by former Labor Health Minister Frank Dobson who, according to a Feb. 7 report in the Guardian newspaper, claimed that “plans to extend faith schools may create a ghastly racist Clockwork Orange society.”

Dobson´s remarks came as he tabled amendments to government legislation that would require new faith schools to ensure 25% of their intake came from non-religious applicants, or from followers of other faiths.

Estelle Morris, the education secretary, does not believe that faith schools create segregation, noted the newspaper. However in a Guardian article the next day, Dobson claimed “the government´s encouragement of more religious schools will further divide children and divide communities in the face of growing concern at the weakening of the links which bind our society together.”

Leaders of public-sector teachers unions are also strong critics of religious-based education. The government´s decision to encourage more faith schools risks the establishment of “Osama bin Laden academies” or “colleges of new messianic ethics,” warned Peter Smith, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, in a report published March 26 by the Telegraph.

Further opposition came during a recent meeting of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers. According to the Guardian on April 5, the representatives of the second-largest teachers union approved a motion opposing the creation of more single-faith schools because it would encourage “more social fragmentation.”

Values that will help society

But defenders of faith schools have not been silent. Damien Green, writing in the Telegraph on Dec. 18, noted that opposition to these institutions increased after the publication of a report accusing them of encouraging divisions between Asian and white communities and contributing to the tensions leading to last summer´s riots in Britain.

Green, however, doubted the validity of the report´s conclusions. He observed that most of the cities that saw unrest involving Asian youths do not have a Muslim school, thereby eliminating the possibility that an Islamic education was behind the trouble. He also noted that many of the church schools are prepared to take in children “from all faiths and none.”

Andrew Wright, in a Feb. 7 article in the New Statesman, accused opponents of faith schools of ignoring important facts. Wright, director of the Center for Theology, Religion and Culture at King´s College, London, wrote: “Their accusations that religion is a primary cause of violence in the world turn blind eye to the fact many of the worst atrocities of the previous century — Auschwitz, Dresden, Hiroshima — were carried out in the name of secular ideologies.”

Wright called for a society open to cultural difference. This does not mean excluding faith schools, but rather supporting them as part of “a mature and genuinely multicultural society where traditions of all shapes and sizes are welcome.”

Faith schools are increasingly important in a society where families are often unable to adequately transmit religious values in an ever-more materialistic society, explained Eric Tope, principal of St. Thomas the Apostle College, an all-boys Catholic school in Nunhead, South London.

Writing in the Times on April 4, Tope commented: “Many parents seek out our Church schools in the hope that they will provide a spiritual dimension but also an environment that facilitates good learning, civilised, caring behaviour and the acquisition of a set of values which will contribute to our new emerging society.”

A defense of faith schools was also published March 19 by the Catholic Education Service. This is the body that negotiates on behalf of the bishops on religious-education matters.

In a statement, the group noted that if schools have to admit more non-Catholic pupils, they might soon cease to be Church institutions in any meaningful sense. Such a requirement might also force schools to turn away the very same students whose families and parishes have financially supported the institutions.

As to the argument that taxpayers are funding religion, the statement observed that “Catholics are taxpayers like other members of society. … In fact, the contribution of the Church to the capital costs reduces the financial demands on the public purse.”

On the problem of divisions within society, the statement pointed out that “good Catholic schools inculcate respect and appreciation of humankind.” Moreover, it said, “Catholic schools have a proven track record in successfully educating immigrant and disadvantaged populations.” Perhaps the greatest danger of intolerance comes from those who wish to deny religion any role in children´s education.

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