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Should religious groups receive state funding for their schools?

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Rachael Watkinson        Education        09/07/2008

Should religious groups receive state funding for their schools?

Give reasons for your answer.

This essay explores the reasons, historical and political, for the funding of ‘faith schools’ and discusses the options and opinions held current in the subject. A ‘faith school’ is one which has a relationship with one of the major religions. Sometimes these schools are ‘private’ and funded from parental contribution and church donations, but nowadays many receive all or a significant part of its funding from the state. In Great Britain there are many state funded faith schools but this is not the case in many other countries, which regard religion as a private matter. There are around 7,000 state-funded schools operated by religious groups in England and Wales – 6,400 primary and 600 secondary. Of these, 6,955 are Church of England, Roman Catholic or Methodist. The rest consist of 36 Jewish schools, six Muslim, two Sikh, one Greek Orthodox and one Seventh Day Adventist. http://www.secularism.org.uk/foralloursakesgetridoffaithschoo.html

Religious schools have a long and well-established history in the UK. Some existing schools began in the Middle ages, attached to monastic foundations and as such were Catholic. After the Reformation these became independent, but often kept their Church connections and funding. This established a clear link in the English tradition of faith education, although it was seldom available to many and indeed the practice of free education of poor but able boys (for few places admitted girls) often disappeared as these schools became fee-paying. A small number of schools were also founded by philanthropic individuals who set up establishments for poor pupils or left money to found schools. A local example is one, Hugh Sexey who died in 1619, left money in his will to found a school in Somerset, for poor boys and girls to learn basic literacy, numeracy and a trade.

Provision of education before the establishment of the state sector was largely faith based. Numerous local small schools existed run by individuals of varying ability, Dame Schools were often little better than childminding services with little education. Many churches would have an adhoc system of teaching Scripture and the catechism but few taught more than very simple literacy. In the 18th century a movement grew especially within the nonconformist sector towards provision of Sunday Schools. Many individuals were involved locally; some like Robert Raikes and Hannah More achieved more long-term national fame. Robert Raikes introduced the idea of Sunday schooling in the 1780s and founded a school for the children of chimney sweeps in 1780. Hannah More and her sister Martha picked up this idea and opened several Sunday schools in the Mendip Hills.

Later in the nineteenth century, the formation of the National Society for promoting religious education in 1811 had as one of its core beliefs that ‘the National Religion should be made the foundation of National Education, and should be the first and chief thing taught to the poor, according to the excellent liturgy and catechism provided by our Church.’ The foundation of numerous primary schools throughout England was the result of this beginning and the Non-conformist sector followed this example in the establishment of their own schools under the British and Foreign Society in 1814. The introduction of a grant system in 1833 after the Factory Acts, meant that state funded education had begun. The historic background as described above explains why the situation in England regarding state funded faith schools is so different to that in Europe. Other religious groups organised their own schools during this time but did not receive state assistance.

A smaller number of Jewish state funded schools have been in existence since the 1950’s and over the last decade Muslim and Hindu schools have succeeded in obtaining recognition and funding. Most famous of these is the Islamia primary initially founded in 1983 for the children of Kilburn in North London, one of the leading campaigners on the behalf of this school was Cat Stevens, a 60’s and 70’s pop star who on retirement from the music business converted to Islam. Now known as Yusuf Islam he led encouraged the parents and leading Muslim supporters to campaign for government funding at a time when there were no State funded Muslim schools, it took until 1998 to achieve. Many people felt very uncomfortable that large numbers of Muslim children were unable to access high quality state education within a Muslim environment. Following the success of Islamia primary school others have appealed for and been granted state funding.

State funded faith schools are usually either Voluntary Aided (VA) or Voluntary Controlled (VC). A VA school is where a church or religious foundation ‘appoints the majority of the governors and retains control over admissions, religious education and collective worship.’ The church also pays 15 per cent of their capital spending. The local education authority pays for the running of the school. In VC schools the local authority has more control over the admisions policy and selection of teachers. More recently other types of school have been established, Foundation schools which own their own land and employ their own staff, Specialist schools, City Technology Colleges and Academies, each of whom control their affairs with varying inputs from a trust, faith or business sponsor. Many of these are still faith-based schools with state funding.

The recent Education White paper (October 2005) is enthusiastic about creating schools which have links to ‘external partners like parents and community groups, charitable bodies linked to education and business and faith groups’ to gain the ‘benefit of the ethos, support and drive’. They will take ‘control of their own buildings and land, directly employ their own staff, and will set and manage their own admissions criteria, while remaining state maintained schools. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/4449374.stm co.uk)

Public reaction has been mixed, Gaby Hinsliff, political editor wrote in the Observer that the ‘popularity of the nationwide academy scheme with other faith-based organisations has alarmed Labour MPs, who fear they may exacerbate religious divides and help evangelicals to target the next generation’. Sunday August 7, 2005 especially as the new style schools will have the ability to be selective with pupils and take over failing schools. He rejected criticisms from the chief schools inspector, David Bell, who earlier this year condemned private some Islamic schools, saying that "traditional Islamic education does not entirely fit pupils for their lives as Muslims in modern Britain." (Guardian, 8th August 2005)

But the government claims this will give parents more choice.

Parental choice is a key factor in a child’s education, a parent usually chooses where their child goes to school at least when they are young using a variety of criteria. Many parents prefer a child to go to a school that upholds and values their own beliefs especially in a religious or non-religious sense. The DFES itself says that faith schools  “…are popular with parents and make an important contribution to community cohesion by promoting inclusion and developing partnerships with schools of other faiths, and with non-faith schools." The Independent 7th April 2006         

There are many objectors to the concept of faith schools especially those funded by the state. The British Humanist Society believe that faith schools are ‘divisive, discriminatory and unnecessary. We propose a positive alternative: the inclusive, accommodating community school.’ Humanists believe that education should be kept as a secular issue. Trevor Philips, the Chairman for the Commission of Racial Equality is also against faith schools as he considers them as a new form of segregation, which are apparently  ‘breeding extremism,’ he believes that segregated schools will lead to ghettoisation within areas, which reduces the tolerance and awareness of other religions. One main reason against the state funding of faith and trust schools is that any one with money can open a school and say it is entitled to be state funded. This could lead to hundreds of schools not necessarily with the best intentions or in the best places and strong rivalry.

Some people who object to faith schools believe that faith schools teach controversial subjects that should not be taught, for example, Creationism which is taught at Emmanuel college in Gateshead as part of their science curriculum.‘Creationism has a role within the religious education syllabus – but it is not a science and should not be treated as such.’ (Revd Chris Wilson, 13 April 2006)

Its is alleged that faith schools can operate a covert selection policy to improve their league table status by encouraging the applications of more academic pupils, but justifying it on faith grounds.  ‘Church and foundation schools are 25 times more likely to select pupils who will boost their league table ratings than council-run comprehensives.’ (National Literacy Trust, February 2003)

Evidence shows that parents will often go to extreme measures to get the education they want for their child. Some even temporarily move house, renting out their own home to get their children into the catchment area for a certain school. Parents have even been known to lie; ‘Last year a deputy head teacher, from London, was given a formal written warning after being found to have lied on a secondary school application for her daughter.’  (BBC, 13th October 2005) This seems to be because many faith schools are perceived as ‘good’ and statistics often show that faith schools are very good.

Some faith schools do show greater integration rather than increased segregation as mentioned previously. Faith schools across the country promote their connections with schools of different faiths, for example, ‘St Anne Roman Catholic Primary School in Tower Hamlets participates with a neighbouring community school where pupils are all Muslim.’ In the 1996 Education Act it stipulates that all children should experience ‘A daily act of corporate worship, of an essentially Christian nature,’ which is compulsory in all state schools. There are circumstances where schools can opt out of the "essentially Christian" part and parents of other and no religion in faith schools and non-denominational can exclude their child from specific religious instruction if required. Sometimes it is difficult to realise whether a school is a church school or not from the religious instruction delivered, as it is a compulsory requirement.

My own personal experience was in a County Primary School and a CEVC Primary School. In the first the county primary school, almost all the religious education was based on Christian scriptural teaching, whereas in the other we were educated in the Christian ethos with regular visits to the local church for religious holidays but we were also taught to understand other religions. In each school we were visited by the local vicar and participated in Christian assemblies.  I believethe more important issue is the quality of the education a child receives and state funding as an encouragement to provide a balanced and well-taught curriculum. Discussions with friends and family revealed widely varied opinions. It was felt by some that religion should be a personal private matter ‘between self and God’ and as such should be taught by parents rather than state funded schools, as, and if, they chose. Others wanted children exposed to the ‘awe and wonder’ of a strong belief and encouraged to explore their own feelings. The understanding of today’s multi-cultural and multi-faith society was also thought to be important. Some believed that they should be funded in order to allow government monitoring and to ensure that they do not become the foundations for religious extremism. By funding schools with faith origins, the government can ensure that standards are kept high in all areas and can take action against those which are failing using the OfSted system

In conclusion the views on state funding of faith schools are very widely ranged. Some are in favour some are not. The 2005 White Paper emphasises government favour for the state funding of faith schools and is in some respects advancing this beyond the current structure but vociferous opinion of some opponents may bring change. Young minds are easily influenced by respected elders and the Jesuit’s plan to mould a child’s mind has resonances today in some extreme beliefs, these extreme beliefs can be tempered by regular inspections with the help of state funding.











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