Friday, 20 August 2010

In Defence of Faith Schools

I recently watched a documentary on More4, Richard Dawkins’ ‘Faith School Menace?’ (not too sure what the question mark is supposed to imply).

I was quite disappointed. I was obviously aware he would against faith schools, Dawkins never gets to the heart of the issues. He is so keen to argue his point, that the subtlety and nuance of the debate is sacrificed in favour of polemic. On top of this, we are treated with the same old images of cameras focusing on woman in niqaabs, and ominous music playing anytime faith is mentioned (contrasted with the upbeat and hopeful music played when he is reminiscing about his childhood conversion to atheism).

Ultimately, I didn’t think much of the documentary. And I always find myself disappointed at how little Richard Dawkins understands faith. Contrast his works on religion with the depth of works by Karen Armstrong, Tim Winters, even an article in the New Statesmen (an openly secular publication), and you soon see that he just doesn’t quite get it.

Regardless, I wanted to write a few words in defence of faith schools. I will try to be brief, as tempting as it is to dissect the documentary and every point that it made.

Faith schools do add value.

Richard Dawkins claims that Dr Steve Gibbon’s research on faith schools and exam results ‘authoritatively’ establishes that faith schools do not give children a better education.

Dr Gibbon’s work is anything but authoritative. It establishes only that children from similar economic backgrounds achieve similar exam results regardless of whether they go to a faith school or not.

The obvious flaw is that a school’s success is not simply based upon exam results. Ofsted and Estyn look at many varied aspects of a school’s provision. Faith schools consistently score higher. Not only on exam results, which is only a single indicator, but a pupil’s behaviour, their interaction and engagement in classes, the structure and nature of the education. And there are many other indicators that even Ofsted inspections do not account for – for example, the child’s mental well-being, social integration, self-esteem, confidence and so on.

Also, as a final point, in the context of Muslim faith schools, which more often than not deal with children from working class and more impoverished backgrounds, faith schools provide a drastic and visible difference in the grades and add to the social mobility of the children who attend.

Faith schools do add value, and many different levels, to a child’s education.

Faiths schools do not restrict choice.

Dawkins took a large objection to children being taught about faith. Perhaps, not surprisingly, faith schools teach faith from a reverential position.

Of course, without any concession, a child’s freedom of conscience must be recognised and respected, even in a faith school.

The following Quranic verse was revealed in response to Muslim parents who, at the time of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), were overzealous in getting their children to adopt Islam as their faith.

“Let there be no compulsion in religion; truly the right way has become clearly distinct from error…” 2:256

The Quran asserts the right of children, and all humans, to adopt they faith they choose, if any.

This does not run counter to instructing and nurturing a child in a specific faith tradition. Dawkins and others who argue that by rearing a child in a certain faith you are somehow restricting choice in fact betrays their own lack of confidence in the human ability to choose. Sending your daughter to a Christian faith school is by no means a sure-fire way of ensuring she is a Christian in later life. Humans have a fantastic ability to make up their own minds and hearts.

The unfortunate example of the Muslim faith school with a science teacher who didn’t quite understand evolution doesn’t swing the argument either. And although she claimed all her 60 students came to the same conclusion on evolution and faith, I very much doubt it. I teach at a complementary Muslim education school, and at times we engage in discussion about these very topics. In a small class, I am always certain to get a whole spectrum of views – young minds that are grappling with the issues to reach their own conclusions. A more successful example of teaching science and faith can be read in this Comment is Free article.

Faith schools are socially cohesive.

Dawkins’ trip into Ireland was shocking. A casual observer, with no introduction to the Northern Ireland issue, would have presumed that the division and conflict was solely due to Protestant and Catholic division. There was no mention of the word Nationalists or Unionists, or the British rule, or the several hundred year history which led to today’s situation.

As I mentioned, Dawkins, in his zeal to prove a point, never quite deals with the issue. If this is done intentionally, it is malicious, if it is done unintentionally, he’s just plain stupid.

Dawkins used an oft-repeated argument – get kids of different backgrounds together, and world will be okay. This isn’t the case. There are numerous examples of state schools with massive social and racial divisions. Work done on the issue states that if children are to meet others and form positive views about the culture or group they are from, many factors need to be in place. The children need to be of the same economic background, similar language skills and educational level, they must be on an equal footing in terms of power and dominance (especially culturally) - without these factors, such interaction can sometimes confound prejudice rather them remove it.

I would argue that faith schools are in fact essential to a cohesive society.

No matter how good, no state school lacking religion can teach morality.

Faith schools’ RE lessons are not shady places, as Dawkins insinuates, in which children are taught to hate the other.

Rather, the values of faiths are conveyed in these lessons.

Teachings such as the whole of the Torah being ‘that which is hateful to you, do not do to another’ (Talmud), or Jesus (peace be upon him) saying ‘do to others, as you would have done to yourself’ (Gospel of Luke) and Muhammad (peace be upon him) teaching ‘love for mankind what you love for yourself’ (Bukhari).

By nurturing these values within children, their relationship with the rest of the world (not just humanity) becomes one of respect, love, and altruism. More of this is needed, not less.

Parents do have a right to choose the education of their children

Dawkins seems to prefer that the state has a superior say in how children are raised.

What particularly incenses me about Dawkins is that not only is he hypocritical, he doesn’t seem to realise it.

Is there a difference between telling a child ‘the world has a purpose, seek it out’, and telling a child ‘the world has no purpose, things just are’? In both cases, you are predisposing your child to a certain direction of thought. Science doesn’t engage with metaphysical purpose, and absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Parents are the primary source of education for children. If a parent feels that a child will flourish and grow more successfully in a school environment that compliments the morality and teachings at home – then a parent has that right. They are the primary agents responsible for the well-being of their children - not the state.

In closing, even as person of faith, I do recognise that there are some important discussions that need to take place around faith schools in Britain today. But Dawkins engages with none of them.

NB: Much of the above on faith schools is based on some academic work I did at university – so if anyone would like me to qualify the above with references and research, I am more than happy to do so.


  1. Bless you bro, great article,

    Might I add, with the issue of child indoctrination, that I would rather the parent and/or community have a the ultimate say in the education and the rearing of the children, rather than the state producing carbon copies, without the input of most important source, that being the family.

    I think I would opt for a society of people of various view points coming from diverse ways of learning than that of one narrow look and method.

  2. Also, even though you maybe right about tolerance of faith schools. I understand Dawkins view point in such a sense that I was taught by my Islamic studies teacher in high school in Qatar that killing any Israeli is fair game, because they all had military training, hence providing an excuse to kill all Jews wherever I see them, in a twisted way, but my school was a state school and that was not in the curriculum!

    I think with matters regarding faith schools teaching divide and hate comes down to the individual teachers or the ones who set the curriculum themselves rather than the faith itself.

  3. I don't know enough about the specific debate around faith schools yet to be able to comment on the majority of what you said. There are three areas, however, which I feel compelled to respond to:

    "No matter how good, no state school lacking religion can teach morality."

    Given that I've just graduated with a degree in Philosophy, and in September am starting a degree in Ethics and Social Philosophy - and, perhaps more importantly, as a secular humanist - I'm sure you'll understand why I strongly disagree with that statement. What's your reasoning behind that claim?

    Also, given that ethical principles can be espoused in many different religious as well as secular philosophies, where is the justification for spending RE lessons saying that only one of these is The One True Faith? And if this isn't what happens in RE lessons, then what's the point of having a faith school in the first place?


    "Science doesn’t engage with metaphysical purpose..."

    That's assuming that there IS a metaphysical purpose to life, rather than purpose being a subjective thing that we come up with for our own lives. It's a question to be dealt with equally in RE/Ethics lessons, and not to be taught to impressionable young children as "This is the only/best way to lead a good life."


    "If a parent feels that a child will flourish and grow more successfully in a school environment that compliments the morality and teachings at home – then a parent has that right."

    It's not an absolute right. If it was, then we would have no way of condemning extremist Muslims who want to teach children to become suicide bombers, for example. It is a conditional right that must be balanced against the best interests of the child - and teaching them that one particular faith is The One True Faith, and severely limiting (if not eliminating) their exposure to other faiths cannot be so.

    If the parent's faith of choice is so correct and better than other faiths, it can surely withstand exposure to children/families of other faiths. It happens all the time with parents of differing faiths. What have they got to be worried about?

    In addition, the need that you raise for school teaching to "complement" home teaching does not in any way require faith schools. It is perfectly possible, and indeed regularly done, for parents to send their children to a secular school - which will provide worldly knowledge - and raising them privately in their faith, which is intended to provide them with the extra spiritual knowledge seen to be needed. No faith schools required.

  4. But the interesting perennial question that surrounds faith schools, as you pointed out, is why they do so well, and this should be researched further, if it hasn't already, so that the lessons can be used in other schools.

    Perhaps it actually is because they teach a moral view of the world and provide pupils with a sense of purpose in their lives, which I understand to be sadly lacking from the National Curriculum at present. Maybe it's to do with the sense of community and cohesiveness within the school, and the level and depth of pastoral care available to the children.

    These are all lessons that can, and should, be implemented into every school in the country, instead of being given as reasons to keep faith schools in and of themselves.

  5. Hi Ed,

    I’m going to be a bit brief if that’s okay.

    -State school teaching morality.

    Secular philosophies have never articulated why something is good or bad very successfully - Utilitarianism, various reworded forms of hedonism, even Sam Harris’ science and moral theory is pathetically weak.

    Faith schools generally have better behaviour because a moral education is present. A moral education that cannot be matched in state schools (if I’m wrong, please correct me, I’m basing my statements on my own knowledge and experiences, which don’t include a degree Philosophy).

    -Science and metaphysical purpose.

    “It's a question to be dealt with equally in RE/Ethics lessons, and not to be taught to impressionable young children as "This is the only/best way to lead a good life."

    Why not? Secularism tends to give itself the right of way in all situations, and expects faith to justify itself in every sphere other than that which has been allocated to it (i.e. the mosque, the church, an RE lesson).

    -Parents right to educate children.

    I agree its not an absolute right.

    I think you have the impression that parents send their faith schools to prevent exposure to other faiths. This isn’t the case (based on academic research, completed at Cardiff no less). Parents cite the fact they want a wholesome and complete education for their children – an education that includes a spiritual aspect. Faith is not just doctrine and dogma – it has an important experiential aspect to it. An aspect not gained in a state school.

    Also, faith schools rarely limit a child’s experience of other faiths. Frankly, a child’s experience of other faiths and world-views depends much more on geographic location than anything else (i.e. a white Christian child in the Cotswold or the heart of Oxford isn’t going to experience many other faiths other than their own, regardless of whether they are in a faith school or not).

    -Faith schools and state schools sharing good practise.

    Agreed, I think this is one of the important debates that needs to take place.

    The majority of the children in the UK attend state schools, and concerted efforts should be made to ensure that state education is as successful as can be.

    This does mean learning from faith schools and examining what makes them more successful. But part of this process does mean and important and key recognition that faith has tangible benefits – something few secularists are willing to do.

    Also, its worth noting that faith schools existed prior to state schools. It was the Christian faith that opened schools to the poor and disadvantaged, and taught the nation to read and write long before the state had even the vaguest intention.

  6. Faith per se doesn't have any benefit; a sense of purpose and meaning does, of which religious faith happens to be one example. It is very easy to be cynical about secular moralities' provision of meaning and purpose, but the blade goes both ways, and I could similarly question the sturdiness of religious morality, characterising it as: "God says that it's ok; this holy book says it ok; my priest/imam/rabbi has interpreted religious literature to say that it's ok; therefore it's ok." Is this a good basis of deeming something to be good or bad?

    I want to make it clear that I don't believe this to be true, but I do believe it to be the natural conclusion of the belief that secular moralities are somehow shaky or flawed. All morality is something that an individual deems to be so him/herself - even religious moralities, as shown by the many different denominations and interpretations of the main religions. Even if the Qur'an is the undeniable word of God, men and women over the centuries have struggled to understand how that word should be interpreted - thus, the subjectivity of even religious morality comes through.

    With this understanding, the possibility in schools for a secular moral education is clear, whether a certain ethic is promoted or children are encouraged to come to their own conclusions from different ideas. If a Christian faith school, for example, is able to give a moral education by pointing to the Bible as truth, then why is it impossible for a secular faith school to do the same by pointing to Peter Singer's Practical Ethics, or Mill's On Liberty, for example, if they so wish?

    If that were to happen, amongst any other benefits of faith schools, then the possibility of non-faith parents feeling forced to send their children to a faith school for a better education would be eradicated. It would only then be a true choice being given to parents who want the best for their children.

    It is good to see faith schools prosper, and gratifying to look at the history of faith schools providing education before the state became more enlightened and moved towards the goal of providing free, quality education for all children. But it is a mistake to see this history as implying faith schools to be superior, or to believe that secular schools are somehow fundamentally unable to provide a good moral education for their pupils.

  7. Just noticed that I wrote about a "secular faith school" at one point there - not meant to be any comment on whether secular moralities are held as dogmatically by their proponents as religious moralities often are (which is another debate by itself), just a slip of the keyboard :-)