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Faith in schools

Agnostics Anonymous

'It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.' Maybe so, Matthew. And it's easier to get a train of camels through a 6-gauge than to get a child from a secular home into a good state school.

The Elementary Education Act 1870 instituted the first state schools in England and Wales. A key tenet was that these schools, created and funded by the people, must not discriminate on the basis of religious belief. 'It shall not be required, as a condition of any child being admitted into or continuing in the school, that he shall attend or abstain from attending any Sunday school, or any place of religious worship, or that he shall attend any religious observance or any instruction in religious subjects in the school or elsewhere.'

But somehow, 140 years later, as the Fair Admissions Campaign points out, 'schools in the state sector can now discriminate against children because of their beliefs and practices.' Since very few four-year-olds have fully committed to their theological positions, it is of course the beliefs and practices - real or purported - of their parents that are examined.

Faith schools are often a coded way for middle-class parents to flock together; those schools whose admissions criteria allow religious selection for all places typically admit 27% fewer pupils eligible for Free School Meals than the average. At the same time, the proportion of funding contributed by the churches themselves, set at 50% of capital costs in the Butler Act of 1944, has since dropped to 10%, or zero for academies and free schools - which don't have to follow the National Curriculum either.

In an increasingly divided, mutually suspicious society, one in which the multifarious demands of multiculturalism have forced British people to align themselves with ever-smaller and more inward-looking identity groups, schools can and ought to be a rare opportunity for people to be together in a way that is not purely stratified by class, race, religion, nationality, ethnicity.

A 2006 report by London South Bank University found that 'Friendship at primary schools can, and does, cross ethnic and faith divides wherever children have the opportunity to make friends from different backgrounds… There was [also] some evidence that parents learned to respect people from other backgrounds as a result of their children's experiences in mixed schools.'

In the era of homegrown jihadists and Britain First, these are not trivial benefits: not 'nice to haves' but a possible rope ladder out of the pit we've dug. The Jesuits knew what they were on about. Young children are brimming with potential good, and potential bad. Instead of trying to recreate ourselves, to make miniature repositories of our tribal prejudices, we could see if they can show us the way out of the darkness.