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Education Update

‘Faith in the System’

The Government’s defence of faith schools:
‘I don’t agree with these faith schools. It just doesn’t seem right to me. I mean, it’s wrong to indoctrinate children like that, and will only create intolerance in our society. And what’s more, you really shouldn’t make children subscribe to a belief, just so that they can get into a decent school. No, I really can’t agree with them at all.’
There seems to be a lot of controversy surrounding the question of faith schools at the beginning of the 21st century. Perhaps it is the perceived threat of fundamentalist religion in the public consciousness; perhaps it is a result of the now-established, post-modern idea that there is no such thing as absolute truth. Or perhaps it is that, despite the overwhelming majority of people in Britain calling themselves ‘Christian’ in the last census, very few would call themselves active or practising, highlighting the split between meaningful faith and society at large. Either way, the voice of opposition to faith schools is unequivocally there, prompting the Department for Children, Schools and Families to produce ‘Faith in the System’, a 20-page document advocating the role of faith-based schools in our society.

Key Statistics

  • One third of maintained schools (i.e. under the jurisdiction of the Local Education Authority – ‘state schools’) have a ‘religious character’.

  • Out of 47 Academies (privately sponsored schools that replace failing schools), 16 have a faith designation.

  • Nearly 2 out of every 5 independent schools have a ‘religious character’. The vast majority of these are Christian. The next largest group is Muslim, followed by Jewish.

This document begins by asserting the historical importance and significance of faith-based schools. The Church led the way in educating the poor and disadvantaged, long before the State became involved in the 20th century. Indeed, until as late as 1944, when a new Education Act was passed, all schools in the country had a ‘religious character’ (Christian or Jewish), and were affiliated with a religious body. More recently, other faiths have got on board, and there are now schools that are specifically Muslim, Sikh, Seventh Day Adventist and Greek Orthodox. The first Hindu school is due to open in 2008.

The rest of the document addresses some of the common concerns surrounding faith-based education, summarised below.
“It’s wrong to indoctrinate children like that, and will only create intolerance in our society.”

Faith schools, just like all schools, are committed to certain standards in education. It’s their responsibility to offer a ‘broad and balanced education’, which means (for a maintained school) following National Curriculum guidelines on what to teach. It also means helping students to develop key skills and knowledge so that they can become ‘active and responsible citizens’, able to understand and relate to other members of society, whatever their faith. A faith school recognises its critical role in educating its students about other faiths, to promote community cohesion and mutual respect. It’s also committed to allowing opportunities for collaboration with local community groups, and schools with different or no ‘religious character’. This could be through sporting activities, joint projects, or partnerships between schools.

Having said this, a faith school has a ‘distinct identity’ from other schools, in that it has more freedom to promote the teachings and values of their particular faith. This comes through its take on ‘collective worship’ (i.e. assemblies), RE teaching, its appointment of staff and its school ethos. The Government allows the governing body to decide on staffing policies, and has drawn up regulations permitting the school to ‘secure the faith character of the school’. Voluntary-aided schools can take a potential teacher’s faith into account when deciding whether or not to hire them, and can also hire ‘reserve teacher’: teachers hired specifically to teach ‘denominational religious education’.

In summary, then, a faith school can promote its values and teachings at appropriate times and in appropriate ways; but equally, just like every other school, it will educate its students on the values and teachings of other faiths as well, making links with other schools and the local community to promote cohesion.
“You really shouldn’t make children subscribe to a belief, just so that they can get into a decent school.”

Faith schools do not come out of a vacuum. New faith schools come into being ‘where local consultation has shown that this is what the parents and the community want, and where this greater diversity will help to raise standards’. This means that all faith schools cater for a need originated in and demonstrated by the local community. Furthermore, the Government sees itself as responsible for supporting the needs of students who have a clear faith: it will even provide transport for students within 15 miles of a school of their ‘religious character’. It also supports the school’s decision to prioritise students of a given faith when the school is oversubscribed (i.e. when there are more applicants than places), provided parents are made fully aware of its selection criteria.

Having said this, the Government has recently reached new agreements with Christian schools to open their gates to students of different or no faiths, by policy. Church of England schools will now give 25 per cent of their places to non-Christian students. Methodist schools have limited their faith-based admissions to 50 per cent, and new faith-based Academies must allow 50 per cent of their students to come from the local community, regardless of their beliefs. This is to allow (local) parents a free choice of where they can send their children.

In summary, then, faith schools are perceived as invaluable to many students of a particular belief system, and the Government supports this. However, this shouldn’t be at the expense of parental choice, and a given number of places should be reserved for students of different or no faith.

It is difficult to ignore the evident scepticism and suspicion faced by people of all faiths in our society today. However, as this document shows, the Government is clearly behind promoting faith in Britain’s schools, and sees the benefits that subscribing to a faith has, both for individuals and ultimately our society.

Points for reflection
You may want to consider the following questions:

  • What opportunities are open to the Church as a result of this legislation – for young people and the local community?

  • How can we use these opportunities to build on our historical precedent of leading the way in education and educational reform in this country?