Banning faith schools is ideologically wrong. But in practice, it is worse – it is barbarism.

14th June, 2014 9:15 am

“All faith schools are Trojan horses. Let’s ban every single one of them,” said the never understated Dan Hodges. “Faith schools are divisive. Let’s get rid of them,” said Alice Thomson in The Times. “Forget Trojan Horses. The real issue is faith schools,” said Catherine Bennett, who managed to identify and then dismiss the real issue before her Guardian article had even begun.

The broadsheet commentators are angry. Really angry.

You can tell, because their headlines all have two short sentences in them.


It’s not just them though. There are swathes, worrying numbers, across the left who are using the Trojan Horse allegations to attack faith schools. It doesn’t matter that many of the schools at the centre of these allegations aren’t faith schools at all – the meeting of faith and schools within the same story is enough for them to jump to the conclusion they’d already arrived at.

There is, of course, a certain irony that many of these self-styled “rationalists” have followed the same logical route they regularly admonish religious people for: ignoring the evidence to push their agenda.

But forget the straight down the line hypocrisy: there’s nothing progressive about suggesting we ban faith schools (except for the fact that the Kneejerk Left’s immediate reaction to anything is to propose some sort of ban).

First of all, many faith schools serve poor areas. This may be less true of Anglican schools, but it is for immigrant faiths like Catholicism and Islam. When you’re building schools for the benefit of these communities, you are de facto building them for the poor.

Not only do these serve the poor, they serve them well. Catholic primaries are more likely to be rated good or outstanding by Ofsted and Catholic high schools outperform other schools by 5% in GCSEs.

It is not difficult to see why faith schools produce good results: they place a greater importance on the idea a shared ethos in school based upon mutual respect, and they stress the role the students have to play in the wider communities. These attitudes are more likely to lead to better behaviour in classrooms, and better behaviour in classrooms almost always produces a better learning environment.

If you want to see the positive results this can make in our society, look no further than the new Muslim school in my hometown of Blackburn – the first school in the country where the students run their own foodbank. Forgive me if I’m not appalled by the values they are instilling in the young people there.

Often the attacks on faith schools from the left concern selection in schools. Let’s get this out the way: yes, they are selective. But for the extent that they are subsidised by the religious bodies who set them up, they have a right to be. And moreover, they are less homogenous than many believe – around a third of pupils at Catholic schools are not from Catholic families, and they are more ethnically diverse than state schools.

Fundamentally then, the argument for banning faith schools is wrong. When it comes to practicality, the argument is worse.

As I wrote above, religious schools are subsidised by religious bodies. If you stopped them being faith schools, the state would be left with an enormous increase in education spending simply to match what investment there was before. So enormous that it wouldn’t manage. These schools’ budgets would be cut. These schools, that were set up in poor areas to make up for the shortcomings of the state, would have less funding to educate children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Not that many of the schools would still exist – the state does not own the land on which these schools are built. Ban them from being faith schools and then, what? The state buys all that land? We simply can’t afford that.

Schools that had served poor communities, that had achieved good results, that had promoted diversity and community, would close. Ideologically, closing faith schools is a terrible idea. In practice, it is barbarism.

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  • keggsie

    Faith schools are a 19th century anachronism that have no place now in 21st century Britain. God doesn’t exist and never has. Get over it. Belief in such things belong in your own home and churches etc, and not in schools.

    • JoeDM

      Yes. Education should be based on reason and learning not some brand of ritual superstition.

  • Conor,

    Yes you would be right if the proposition was that faith based schools should be made illegal: ie to run them would be a crime. But, the general suggestion, at least as I understand it, is that such schools should not necessarily qualify for funding from the tax payer, which is not at all the same thing.

    Wouldn’t you agree?

    • Tokyo Nambu

      “For example, they should teach the scientific consensus on Evolution and not creationism.”

      Could you perhaps name a voluntary-aided faith school which doesn’t? Creationism is regarded with derision within both the Church of England and the Catholic Church, both of explicitly accept evolution as doctrine, and it’s the CofE and the RCC which between them own the vast, vast majority of faith schools. Lunatic schemes like Peter Varley’s Emmanuel College in Gateshead, which was Tony Blair’s baby, aren’t VA, aren’t under the control of churches and aren’t “faith schools” as the phrase is usually deployed.

      Schools run by mainstream churches aren’t the problem when the issue is creationism. Schools run by fundamentalist lunatics are, but those are Tony and David’s “academies”, not LA VA faith schools run by mainstream churches.

      • Yes I’d largely agree and its important to make the distinction you describe.

  • Rex Hale

    Well said, Conor. The cynical way that the problems in B’ham have been appropriated to make an anti-faith school argument is disgraceful. Am I right in saying that none of the schools involved in the Birmingham Trojan Horse allegations were faith schools anyway? (And two of them were under local authority control, and are not academies). The so-called Trojan Horse affair is all about accusations of extremist values infiltrating some schools – that’s the issue, let’s not cloud it by piggy-backing other issues on it.

    I’m an atheist, and I went to a C of E comp. Being C of E I was hardly aware of religion during my time there. (You know the C of E is.) I have no problems with faith schools. Why is this intolerance towards them so common on the Left? Why ban what parents seem to want?

    • treborc1

      Well these schools are faith schools and they do segregate children into boys and girls, are we really going to go down the Muslim route of having girls at the back of the class boys in the front.

      I find a lot of this very strange that we would allow the children to be seen as being not equal and I sadly think we will be heading for a lot of trouble in the future.

      Sorry but from what I’ve seen these schools are an issue.

      • Tokyo Nambu

        “Well these schools are faith schools and they do segregate children into boys and girls, are we really going to go down the Muslim route of having girls at the back of the class boys in the front.”

        They aren’t. They are straightforwardly LA-maintained or former LA-maintained, now academy, non-faith schools. Some, although not all, of what has been going on would have been within the parameters of a voluntary-aided faith school, but these aren’t.

        Of course, there is a voluntary-aided Muslim faith school in east Birmingham, Al-Hijrah, which is a car crash of governance for other reasons, but as yet doesn’t appear to have been dragged into this debacle.

        If the issue at hand is sexual segregation, Birmingham has a large number of single sex schools. The vast majority (all of them, from memory, but I suspect there may be exceptions I’ve forgotten about) of the single-sex schools are either LA-maintained or formerly LA-maintained schools: most of them are either the remaining grammars or schools which were grammars up until the abolition of the city-wide 11+ in 1974 but have remained single-sex. I can’t offhand think of a school which is both faith and single-sex, although I’m sure they exist (there was, for example, St Anges’ in Erdington, but that merged into the mixed St Thomas Campion in 1975).

        • treborc1

          A car crash waiting to happen. and what I saw this week on TV with a Governor of one of those non Muslim schools saying we will segregate because it’s our faith, and teachers will wear the correct Uniform because it’s our faith, pretty much shows these schools are run along the faith schools whether they are state maintained or not.

          • Tokyo Nambu

            ” a Governor of one of those non Muslim schools saying we will segregate because it’s our faith”

            Citation, please. The narrative from most of the governors interviewed has been one of flat denial, so it would be interesting to see one saying otherwise. Which channel, and which school?

            But even accepting for a moment that what you say is true, how does closing faith schools help if the problem is that secular LA-controlled schools have been converted into de facto faith schools?

          • JoeDM

            There were similar statements on the Channel 4 news item I saw. And clear evidence of gender segragation of adults at a parents meeting which was filmed.

          • MikeHomfray

            Now that I disagree with. It wasn’t segregation in the sense of anything enforced. It simply followed the typical pattern of Muslim public socialising where men and women do separate. Seemed to me they were doing it because thats what they do, not because they were being forced to

            That doesn’t imply that i think its a good thing, by the way, but i think we need to be careful before assuming that anything is forced upon others

        • PoundInYourPocket

          I think there’s a difference between single sex schools, and mixed sex schools in which girls sit at the back !

          • Tokyo Nambu

            So you’d say that a nominally mixed school in which black pupils sat at the back was bad, but having whites only and blacks only schools was somehow OK? I suspect you wouldn’t.

            Single-sex schools are a peculiarly British, in fact more English, thing, dating back to when grammar schools were only for boys. We look past them and somehow don’t see them as discriminatory. Most of them are on smaller sites than their neighbouring boys’ school, lack workshops, have fewer laboratories, etc.

          • PoundInYourPocket

            I was just rebutting the odd idea that “girls at the back of the class” was no worse than “single sex schools”. Both systems are segregated, but the first is far worse than the second as girls are visibly segregated and treated as less important.

      • Rex Hale

        None of the Trojan Horse schools are faith schools. If anyone has evidence to the contrary, please do share it. I agree that having girls at the back of the class is disgusting – and when we see evidence that faith schools are guilty of that to a greater degree than (supposedly) secular schools then maybe we can construct an anti-faith school argument. But at the moment it doesn’t seem to be the case.

        • JoeDM

          The schools are faith schools in all but name. They have appropriated the status unofficially by ignoring the regulations regarding non-faith schools.

          • MikeHomfray

            What has happened is that they have adopted the typical assumption of the majority faith which in their case happens to be Muslim, but is usually Christian, albeit a pretty wishy washy lets-be-nice-to-everyone variety.

    • ThisIsTheEnd

      “Why is this intolerance towards them so common on the Left?”

      I think the “intolerance” of tax funded faith schools by the Left is due to the fact that such schools discriminate and segregate school children based solely on religion/ethnicity.

      • Tokyo Nambu

        “I think the “intolerance” of tax funded faith schools by the Left is due to the fact that such schools discriminate and segregate school children based solely on religion/ethnicity.”

        Work out the bill to compulsorily purchase the land, then see how keen an incoming Labour government is on closing down faith schools. VA schools are funded on a capitation basis, but the capital projects are mostly funded by the church, and the churches own the land and don’t (in any useful sense) charge rent for it. Pull the plug on funding them, and the churches couldn’t afford to run them as schools, the state couldn’t afford to buy the land, and you’d be left with a lot of new housing and a massive hole in school provision.

        ““I’ll tell you what happens with impossible promises…”

        • ThisIsTheEnd

          I honestly not sure how anything you said relates to my comment but I was bemused by your assertion that the UK state can’t afford to buy land…

      • Rex Hale

        That’s not true. They don’t. There is some selection by faith, but schools also take pupils from other faiths or none. I read yesterday that C of E is considering ending ALL selection by faith and making the schools completely open. There was no selection by faith at the C of E school I went to. I grew up a happy atheist 🙂

        • ThisIsTheEnd

          There’s no selection but there’s some selection?

          So some faith schools take pupils of all faiths whilst others don’t. Big deal

          • Rex Hale

            Your post seemed to imply that all children are selected based on faith – apologies if I misread. All I wanted to clarify was that it is a more varied picture than that.

          • ThisIsTheEnd

            No worries

        • Tokyo Nambu

          “There is some selection by faith, but schools also take pupils from other faiths or none.”

          I believe that in London there are CofE schools which are sufficiently over-subscribed that they never get beyond the “regular church attenders, by distance” category. There’s certainly one like that in Birmingham, which has become the nexus of a lot of expensive housing.

    • MonkeyBot5000

      The CofE is a little different in that it’s more of a social club than a religion.

      They don’t run religious schools, they run religish schools.

  • EricBC

    The development of freedom of thought expression is not compatible with the transmission of faith in a school.

  • PoundInYourPocket

    I think there are two issues, one being “what is taught” , and the second being “how are pupils selected”. On the first issue the “faith” element of what is taught has to be nil. Otherwise it becomes indoctrination. religious teaching has to be pluralistic and impartial in any school, otherwise it’s devisive and (I hope) illegal. On the isue of selection, why would any school only wish to teach pulpils of the same faith. Especially when we live in a diverse society. Selecting out pupils based on faith is divisive and in my opinion should not be counternanced in any school system, private or state. To do otherwise is to divide society along faith lines. Just been listening to Radio 4 Westmminster hour with an excellent piece about the effects of faith-divided schools in N.Ireland.

    • i_bid

      Christ, I didn’t know that about Reg Vardy. How depressing.

  • Steve Stubbs

    If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks, then it’s a duck; even if denies that and claims to be a swan.

    The state must stop subsidising religious schools which pretend to be otherwise. The state should be totally secular, leaving religion to the private individual. If those of various faiths want to run schools, then they should

    a). Teach the national curriculum,

    b) Comply with the law of the land regarding religious, racial and gender discrimination.

    Superstition has no place in the state paid for sector.

  • MonkeyBot5000

    If saying schools should impart knowledge instead of superstition is barbarism, I’m monkey’s robotic uncle.

    Wait a minute…

  • swatnan

    Its rather like the pot calling the kettle a barabrian. Faiths schools are wrong, because they set up allows entryism for politically and religiously minded individuals to set the Agenda the way they want it to be; and it only requires a few active indivuals to upset the applecart.Thats what entryists do; its their mission in life to create their vision of the world.

    • Tokyo Nambu

      “Faiths schools are wrong, because they set up allows entryism for politically and religiously minded individuals to set the Agenda”

      Practically, the reverse is true. Diocesan governors tend to turn up to meetings. Ask anyone who’s a governor on an LEA-controlled school how often the LEA-appointed governors turn up to the meetings.

      Parents and mysteriously co-opted “community” governors form a much larger portion, usually the majority, of the governance of the typical maintained school or non-sponsor academy (such as at Park View). it’s trivially easy to take such a governing body over with co-option or well-planned election candidates.

      It would be very difficult for a group of individuals to take over the governing body of a VA school, simply because they’d never be able to form anything close to a majority. The usual complaint, in fact, is that the governance of VA schools is heavily dominated by the diocese, and parents and community governors struggle to be heard.

      Now, you might like to argue that diocesan appointees are inherently “entryist”, but that not a serious position. Could you perhaps point to the VA faith school which has been the subject of anything remotely approximating entryism in, oh, the last fifty years?

  • i_bid

    So countless countries around the world that haven’t allowed their schools to be sectarian faith-based indoctrination factories are “barbarians”. What a ludicrous article. Forget banning faith schools, I’d be happy if Blairite true believers like the OP were banned from Labour.

  • MikeHomfray

    Don’t close them. Just make them secular. Religion for church, temple and mosque. Not school

    • Matthew Blott

      If you think about what you said for a minute you’ll realise how daft it was. Making a religious school secular is like turning a pub into a teetotal drinking den.

      • MikeHomfray

        No. I don’t believe in religious schools. So if the schools wish to stay religious, they go independent and charge rather than expect subsidy from the state.
        As far as I am concerned if a school receives money from the state, then it is a state school – and the church should not be involved. Given that they don’t pay for them, they should have no say over their future,

        • Matthew Blott

          Er yes, but then it’s not a religious school is it.

          • MonkeyBot5000

            It’s also not a closed school. That’s why Mike said…

            “Don’t close them. Just make them secular.”

            Stopping schools being “religious” is the aim, not an unfortunate side effect.

          • MikeHomfray

            Thanks Monkey. Matthew – think we agree on this one actually. I dislike the hypocrisy which is currently going on where those doing the most criticising of Muslim schools are those who support Christian faith schools to the hilt – I think secular state education for all is the best way forward

          • Matthew Blott

            Glad to agree 🙂

  • Steve38

    Conor needs to come clean. His dad, ex MP Gregory Pope, is deputy director of Catholic Education Services the objective of which is to promote the Catholic religion primarily through education.

    • MikeHomfray

      Indoctrination plc, eh?

    • Matthew Blott

      Ah, that explains why Conor Pope is so out of touch. No doubt after a brief stint as a spad (if he’s not already) he’ll be parachuted in somewhere to stand while never having had a proper job.

    • MonkeyBot5000

      That might also explain why he’s against a recall process as well.

      It’s about time LL started giving their writers a proper biography page where they can declare their interests.

  • Matthew Blott

    There is so much wrong with this article it’s hard to know where to start. LabourList has generally been free of bien pensant Seamus Milne fans but I fear Conor Pope is one of them. Still, let’s go through this.

    Conor Pope does not object to the state paying for selection by religion but has a problem with selection by ability. Read that sentence again as it is quite astounding when you think about it.

    Conor Pope cites the fact religious schools serve poor areas. So what? A big reason Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood are popular is because they step in where the state does not or cannot provide services to the poor. I don’t care if the kids in Muslim areas are getting straight A’s if the price paid is turning local comprehensives into Wahhabi inspired madrassas.

    Conor Pope objects to banning religious schools on the basis it would cost money. No doubt introducing universal free education was expensive but the state took the long view and that economic benefits would accrue – I would argue there are significant social advantages to having pupils from different backgrounds integrate and we would be less likely to have fellow citizens keen on travelling to faraway lands they have no connection with and strapping explosives to themselves and blowing up families enjoying a meal in a pizza restaurant.

    There is an obvious example we can look at for the consequences of religious schools and that’s Northern Ireland. Its problems were incubated with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. Communities can only learn to live together when they interact with each other but the appallingly divisive education system in Ulster doesn’t allow for this. Thus we have a new generation of bigots who are too young to remember the Troubles and probably view the period as some romantic struggle of their side. Strong measures were taken in the US during the civil rights era to meet the challenge head on and something similar is required here. State schools should be mixed and free of religion (something that should happen everywhere but it’s particular prescient in NI) only then can kids learn to get along and not fear the other. Until this happens, nothing will change.

    If I seem shrill then it’s because Conor Pope started it by suggesting closing faith schools is barbaric. I also think it’s the first time I’ve been angry with something I have read on Labour List. Still it’s a good example of why Labour is polling badly – too many of its members worry about cultural sensitivity rather than what is obviously the right thing to do.

  • MonkeyBot5000

    As I wrote above, religious schools are subsidised by religious bodies.

    And as Tom Copley wrote, the religious body pays about 10% of the costs and that is only for Voluntarily Aided “faith” schools.

    Not Voluntarily Controlled “faith” schools.
    Not Foundation “faith” schools.
    Not “faith” Academies.

    They put in a very small subsidy for certain schools, but get a whole load of other tax exemptions because they believe an invisible man is watching everything they do.

  • Monkey_Bach

    A secular state should not fund religiously biased schools. All state schools should be places that any child can attend to receive the same basic secondary education no matter what their race, colour or creed, separated from religious dogma: state funded education should be devoted to giving our children the knowledge and tools to enable them to make their own decisions and prosper in this world not prepare them for the next.


  • Danny

    The issue with faith schools for the left is similar to the issue with privatisation on the right. Too many people allow their opinion to be governed by ideology (religion is bad, faith schools are bad) rather than what is actually happening.

    Faith schools work, the figures attest to this. I’m sure there are a few bad apples with unfair selection policies, but the majority, whilst insisting on a reasonable number of staff who are of the faith (but nowhere near a majority), have a diverse set of teachers and staff.

    I have to declare an interest in that I went to a Catholic school that I could not have been happier with. The student population was made up of many children of Irish immigrants, but it also had a a handful of Asian and African children of different faiths (pretty hard to come by in Norfolk) as well as some Kosovon refugees. I was taught R.E by a passionate Rangers supporter who was a devout Anglican. I had an Indian Muslim English teacher. I had a vocally atheist Maths teacher. The only insistence they placed on their teaching staff was that they had to buy into the Christian ethos of the school, which isn’t a difficult thing to do.

    If it wasn’t for the name of the school and the compulsory end of term, full-school Mass (three a year) you would not know it was a Catholic school. There was no indoctrination whatsoever. The school had a priest who attended once a week to support students and conduct confessions and what have you, but only to those who wanted it. Most people went through school having never spoken to him.

    The fact of the matter is, but for a few bad apples, the faith school system works for countless children. The idea of them being indoctrination camps is a fallacy with little basis in reality. They get better results and, particularly with Catholic schools, provide benefits to individuals from poor communities.

    Take them away and you lose all that. You’ll lose a significant amount of funding that comes from various religious organisations that will either have to be replaced by government cash, or will lead to a drop in the standard of education for thousands of children. And for what? You satisfy the protests from a few vocal members of the electorate, the majority of whom have pretty warped ideas of what actually happens in faith schools.

    • Jack

      Danny, your school sounds as though it was an excellent school and was a model for others, however, what you have in fact described is a ‘secular’ school. I was also educated in Catholic schools and I can tell you they were nothing like yours.

      I don’t say religion is bad, although to be honest I think it’s past its sell by date, but I do think schools funded by the state where one of the main aims, if not the main aim, is to proselytise their religious beliefs, IS bad.

  • Jack

    Some, maybe a majority, of religious people would like their children
    educated in a school of their own faith and for that reason it should
    not happen. There is no surer way of creating divisions and splits in
    society than separating children at the very age when they should be
    mixing together. If parents want to indoctrinate their children in a
    particular belief, whether it’s religious or political, in a free society there is nothing that can prevent
    it, however they can do it outside the school in their own time and at
    their own expense. Children can only form a truly balanced view of life by mixing with others from different backgrounds and customs.

    Forget all the nonsense about Christian or
    Muslim values etc., all schools should teach Human values and be
    overseen by a common secular authority.

  • David Hussell

    I understand that the schools currently being shrilly debated were not “faith schools” anyway ?


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