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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Faith Schools: A Teacher's True Story

Friday, June 18, 2010

The new government has reaffirmed a committment to supporting faith schools. Like the British Humanist Association, I am largely against the formal inculcation of religious values into education. The way to create an inclusive society is to teach about a full range of religions to a diverse spectrum of pupils, and to teach a core curriculum without it being tainted by questions of belief rather than rationality. Just before the dissolution of Parliament, for example, the Labour government managed to sneak in an undebated amendment which allows faith schools to opt out of rules on teaching sexual issues such as contraception and homosexuality. Then education minister Ed Balls insisted that:
There's no opt-out for any faith school from teaching the full, broad, balanced curriculum on sex education. Catholic schools can say to their pupils that, as a religion, we believe contraception is wrong, but what they can't do is say they are not going to teach about contraception.
The messages here - and those that will be delivered to pupils of such schools - are so confused and confusing that they surely cannot help to alleviate the problem of young pregnancies and sexual health. It's the equivalent of the school bully giving you a cigarette whilst warning that it is bad for your lungs.

Then there are the questions of manipulation of the system, so that wealthy parents "convert" to the religious faith of whichever good school happens to be in the vicinity, buying into a religion in the same way as they might buy a house in the catchment area of a good school, pushing up prices in the process and thereby excluding poorer families from those neighbourhoods.

Of course, all these problems might be just about acceptable were it proven that faith schools are educationally better than non faith schools. However, the evidence on this is hard to decipher, because pupils from a particular religious background tend to come from the better socio-economic backgrounds that are a predominent predictor of a student's educational outcomes. In 2009, a Parliamentary Report surveyed the evidence and concluded that:
Recent research on primary schools suggests that performance difference can largely be explained by prior attainment and background. The remaining differences are due to parental self-selection and selection methods used by some faith schools. Further analysis of GCSE results shows a different pattern of results for faith and non-faith schools with similar governance arrangements and control over admissions. Non-faith schools perform better in certain categories, faith schools do best in others and there is no clear difference in some.
While the national statistics cannot determine whether faith schools perform because of or in spite of the religious doctrines (or indoctrination) that underpin them, at a personal level I've just heard a true story that suggests the local problems of putting faith ahead of the education of children.

A Teacher's Story
Sarah is a young and ambitious teacher in a small, Catholic primary school in a close-knit village community. She has been through several Ofsted inspections, where her work was held to be so good that it was taken as a model for other teachers in the Local Education Authority to use. She is a very popular teacher at the school, with colleagues, parents and pupils.

So when the school's deputy headship became vacant, Sarah was not only keen to apply, she was explicitly encouraged by the school governors to do so. There was just one snag. Sarah happens to be an atheist, such that although she is allowed to teach at the school, as with other Catholic maintained primary schools she is barred from applying for deputy or headship positions.

Instead, the post was advertised externally, and two candidates came forward, neither of them ideal (as Sarah well knew, having sat on the interviewing panel). Admirably, the school has a pupil's council who also interviewed the candidates, and the one that was ultimately selected was not liked by the council - and has remained uneasy with the students ever since. One of the horrible ironies is that the new deputy, ostensibly Catholic, is not actively practising, whilst Sarah refused to succumb to the hypocrisy of "converting" to Catholicism just to secure her promotion. She is, of course, quite willing to teach the Catholic curriculum, albeit objectively rather than invested with her personal adherence to the faith.

In this small school, then, Sarah has now reached a ceiling with regards to her skills and abilities. Clearly, she is of deputy headship material, but she will have to move to a non-faith school if she wants to realise this ambition. Indeed, last year, one of her colleagues did just this in order to take up a deputy-headship at a non-faith school. All concerned in this scenario will lose out: the school will lose one of its star teachers, whilst having to take on a less than ideal deputy, whilst the pupils and parents will have to get used to another teacher (which can be disruptive in a small, village school).

In 2007, reports indicated that Catholic schools faced a crisis in recruitment of school leaders, with more than half of headteacher vacancies having to be re-advertised. Sarah's experience, then, cannot be that uncommon, and there must be many junior staff who have aspirations for headships or deputy headships in faith schools who are discriminated against on the grounds of their atheism or holding to other religious beliefs.

Catholic schools typically receive just 10% of their funding from the Church, with the remainder being provided by the state. It is unacceptable that a largely state supported school like Sarah's will be unable to educate its pupils to the best of the abilities of its available staff. Whilst the statistics on faith schools may equivocate about whether they are ultimately better at teaching children, it is important to remember that children are not statistics. In this particular case, there is no doubt that the children's education has suffered as a result of the dogmatic adherence to religious values, and that Sarah - the school's star junior teacher - will be forced to look elsewhere to reach the educational heights which she is capable of attaining.

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Posted by Alistair at 9:12 am


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