Faith schools: educational or divisive?

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If you had asked me before I left high school what I thought about attending a faith school, I probably would have been stumped by the question. Coming from a strongly Catholic background, going to both a Catholic primary and secondary school was natural to me, and did not seem out of place. I only ever encountered one occasion where my faith school background was challenged. During a rounders tournament with a neighbouring Church of England school, one pupil declared “don’t touch that bat, it’s a catholic bat.” But other than that, going to a faith school was as normal for me as going to a school with teachers in it. Since then, however, my view has (thankfully) broadened through going to a non-faith college and of course, university.

The question is whether having faith schools is a positive in the first place. There are some occasions where my experience of education has been starkly different to that of my peers who attended non-faith schools. There is also a common perception that faith schools do better than non-faith schools, and this was certainly the case in my area. The BBC recently reported that a Church of England school in Kingston-upon-Thames dropped its religious requirements because of suggestions that families were attending church only to gain a good school place. This was backed up by an anonymous father who contributed to the report, suggesting that many parents exercised the ‘on your knees to save the fees’ policy – in other words, start praying to get their child the best education, whilst avoiding the large fees of private schools. But whether private schools are unilaterally better than state schools is another question altogether.

It’s an issue I’ve encountered plenty of times. Most of my peers at secondary school, when asked, would identify themselves as Catholic, but when I attended church on a Sunday at the local parish, I would be the only school pupil amongst the congregation. Some would also resent having to go to church while at school for celebrations, such as St Peter’s Day and Ash Wednesday, amongst others, poking fun at the school’s attempt to practice what it preached (pardon the pun).

You might be inclined to think, then, that I’d be in support of faith schools as a way of uniting a group of people in their beliefs. But, since seeing the BBC report and thinking long and hard about this issue, I am categorically against faith schools. The French system, where faith and education are completely separated – to the extent that signs of religious worship such as crucifixes or burqas are banned – seems to me a much better idea. For most, religion is a choice; I choose to be a Catholic, I choose to go to Mass every Sunday, and I choose to believe in a Christian God. Choosing to go to church to get your child into a good school undermines the core of any religion, Christian or otherwise.

Receiving an education should be balanced, rounded and unbiased – I believe my education, in some respects, probably wasn’t. Fortunately, I am now at a university with an astonishingly good religious service for many different faiths: Catholicism, Islam, Judaism, Greek Orthodox, and Anglican. For me, education should include teaching on all religions within religious education lessons; but religion should be restricted to these lessons, without permeating the rest of school life. Having faith schools encourages ignorance for children who are exposed to only one way of religious thinking, which in turn could lead to prejudice towards other religions. I’ll never forget my experience of going to a faith school, but for our future generations, it is vital that education and religion are wholly separated.

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