British Studies Web Pages
Faith in our schools
A group of prominent Muslims is demanding more state funds for Muslim schools, and describes the present system, in which all but a handful of government-funded faith schools are Christian, as "institutionally racist". Are they right?
How many faith schools are there?
A third (7,000) of British state schools are faith schools, the vast majority Christian (25% of primary schools are C of E and 10% of pupils in England and Wales are at Catholic schools). There are 33 state-funded Jewish schools. Four Muslim and two Sikh schools have been set up since 1997.
What is the origin of faith schools?
From the late 18th century, as Parliament began to regulate the hours children could work, churches - supported with public money - started to provide a basic weekday education for the "poor of the Parish". It was a response both to what was seen as the growing immorality of the working classes and to a real fear of public disorder. The Church of England built 17,000 schools between 1811 and 1851 alone. Yet at a time when the USA, France and Prussia were all pressing ahead with compulsory schooling and a national curriculum, provision in Britain, guided by the spirit of paternalistic voluntarism, remained patchy.
When did the state get seriously involved?
In 1870, under pressure from industrialists worried about the poor skills base, Parliament introduced compulsory universal education for children aged five to 13. Churches continued to run their own schools but new, non-denominational schools opened alongside them. The state schools were known as board schools, as they were run by locally elected school boards. In 1902 the church schools - mostly C of E - were integrated into the state system, much to the fury of nonconformists, many of whom went to jail rather than pay taxes for schools they believed to be propagating a false religion. The churches' insistence on retaining control of their pupils' education proved the biggest obstacle in the creation of the modern school system, brought in under the 1944 Education Act. In the end a classic British compromise was reached whereby provision was made for two distinct types of religious school: "voluntary aided" and "voluntary controlled".
How much autonomy has this left for the churches?
It depends on how much funding they receive from the state. In "controlled" schools the Local Education Authority (LEA) takes on the burden of upkeep for the whole fabric of the school, but in return the LEA gets to employ the staff (religious criteria may not be applied in the recruitment of staff or children) and to set admissions policy. In "voluntary aided" schools by contrast, it is the school governors (representing the religious foundation that owns the school) who have to find the funding for its external fabric - and for any new building. (However, grant aid of up to 85% is often available.) But that also gives the governors the right to employ staff, to determine the RE syllabus, and to use personal religious criteria in selecting staff .and pupils. The C of E advises its governors to take account of the local community and to ensure that wealthier parents from outside the area don't push out local people. Yet popular church schools still tend to select on the basis of a family's church attendance. As a result it's not uncommon for parents to start attending church as admission deadlines approach.
Are they better than other schools?
A recent paper by the Office for Standards in Education says that results achieved by pupils in faith schools "are higher than the average for all schools". Catholic schools - where levels of disadvantage, as indicated by free school meal entitlement, tend to be higher -do especially well. Advocates of faith schools argue that when there's a clear religious ethos it's easier to instil discipline and a moral lead. And there's often a strong sense of community, with parishes, priests and chaplains all part of the support network. But critics say that faith-based admissions policies allow such schools to weed out more disruptive pupils and so get better results.
Does the Government support faith schools?
Enthusiastically. Former Education Secretary David Blunkett said he wished he could "bottle" whatever it is that gives such schools their strength. The Blairs chose the Roman Catholic London Oratory for their sons. Labour's 2001 White Paper on secondary education promised extra taxpayers' money towards the capital costs of faith schools and encouraged churches to take over the management of state schools which are struggling. But opponents - including many Labour MP’s — argue that faith schools increase the risk of racial and religious polarisation, and sow seeds of intolerance and civil strife. The problem would be even worse, say the critics, if there were more state-supported Islamic schools, not least because Muslim parents choose such schools with the very aim of keeping their children separate from the wider society.
Why are Muslims demanding more Islamic schools?
Though 3% of the British population is Muslim and there are more regular mosque attenders than there are C of E churchgoers, out of 7,000 odd state schools, only five are Islamic. The authors of Muslims on Education, a report published last month, argue that this is deeply unfair and that institutional racism is preventing LEAs from approving more Muslim state schools, despite a high level of parental demand. The report also proposes a new A-level in Islamic studies and that there should be a teacher of Islam in all Muslim-majority state schools.
Are there religious schools in other countries?
Yes, but few include them as part of the state system. Australia, France, Germany and the US keep their public school systems religion free. Denominational schools don't exist within the tax-funded system and no religious worship is allowed in public schools. (In Britain, by contrast, the state obliges head teachers, many of them atheists, to conduct daily worship.) Yet in all four nations, churches are better attended than they are in Britain.
Should the state support faith-based schools?
THE WEEK - 3 July 2004