IN BRITAIN, a largely secular country where churches retain their historic role in education, there is little agreement about the place of religion in schools. Some fret that schools for children of a particular faith foster segregation; others cite parents’ right to educate their offspring as they see fit, adding that religious schools outperform secular ones (though opponents say that is because richer children go to them). Such rows tend to entrench attitudes, rather than lead to resolution.
Now campaigners, both godly and godless, are trying to change that. September 1st saw the launch of Accord, a coalition of Christians, Jews, humanists, secularists and teachers who hope to sidestep fruitless rows about whether religions should run schools and instead get them to do it more fairly. They take issue with schools favouring children of their own faith in admissions: “Churches should be championing social justice and equality for all in education, not privileging their own,” says the Rev Christopher Rowland of Accord. And they want to stop schools reserving jobs for co-religionists and those who follow church teachings in their private lives.
Accord’s aims go against the tide. Tony Blair believed that religious schools transmit morals and discipline. Under his watch as prime minister 7,000 Christian schools, mostly inherited from the days before state education, have been joined by the first Islamic, Sikh and Hindu ones, and the number of Jewish schools has grown too. Up to 100 private Islamic schools are on track for state funding. Many academies (semi-independent state schools) are run by religious groups.
Mr Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown, is thought to be less fervent. Ed Balls, his schools secretary, says he has no desire for more religious schools. Fewer of them, though, seems out of the question: “Faith schools are successful, thriving, popular and here to stay,” says Kevin Brennan, the children’s minister. And policies favouring them are still being implemented. A law passed in 2006, and brought into force on September 1st, extended religious schools’ right to reserve posts for those of their own faith, if there is a “genuine occupational requirement”. Claiming that cleaners may have to help pupils through crises of faith probably won’t wash; making the same claim for senior staff probably would.
This all seems odd, as churches’ influence outside schools is waning. When asked if they are Christian, respondents are less likely to say yes the more tightly the question is phrased (see chart). Those of other religions, and recent immigrants, are more devout, but only a quarter of all Britons say they have a “personal God”.
The right to select pupils by religion also sits oddly with the main political parties’ abhorrence of selection by another criterion—ability. During a row over academic selection in 2006 Ruth Kelly, then education secretary, said her party wanted “parents choosing schools, not schools choosing parents”. The formula was repeated by the Conservative leader, David Cameron, during his party’s near-implosion over grammar schools in 2007.
Politicians cling to religious schools because some parents do, desperate for an alternative to bog-standard comprehensives. But in the end, worldly factors may settle heathens’ and godbotherers’ differences. Head teachers are already scarce; religious schools, especially Catholic ones, are suffering most, says John Howson, a recruitment specialist, and a looming retirement bulge will not help. Religious schools may have to become less exclusive—or lose out in the battle for talent.[ education ] [ secularism ] [ uk ]