Priests, parents or the state: who should be responsible for children’s education? – Part 1: the role of religion

These are profound issues about which there is little consensus in the UK. Elsewhere in the world states and societies are increasingly coming to radically different and conflicting conclusions.

The history of public education in England

This is a huge subject, but fortunately we have Derek Gillard, who appears to have made it his life’s work to compile a definitive record complete with authoritative references. Derek is in my view a national hero, because not only is he constantly updating and extending this massive task, he makes it all free to access. Thank you Derek.

The United Kingdom was slow to introduce compulsory education due to the upper class defending its educational privileges. In England and Wales, the Elementary Education Act 1870 paved the way for compulsory education by establishing School Boards to set up schools in any places that did not have adequate provision. Attendance was made compulsory until age 10 in 1880.

The Church of England has a long history of involvement in the English education system, which is reflected in the legal requirement for daily acts of worship and weekly religious education lessons, although in my 32 years as a teacher I have taught in many schools, including my headship school, where neither took place. Such religious intrusion into state education systems is illegal in most countries of the world including those with highly religious populations such as the US and in France, where Roman Catholicism is strong.

The first part of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” The ‘establishment clause’, as it is commonly called, is meant to protect individuals from the establishment of an official state religion.

In the secular French education system, school students are taught about different religions. There is no Christian or any kind of worship.

In England, the Church of England (the Established Church) is deeply embedded in the state education system, as it is in the UK political system, with its bishops sitting in the House of Lords and the prohibition of a Catholic monarch. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair apparently felt he could not convert to Catholicism until he resigned as Prime Minister. This reflects centuries of religious wars throughout Britain and Ireland. Despite, or perhaps because of this, the Roman Catholic church is also allowed to run its own state funded schools within the state school system, as are other faith organisations. A faith school teaches a general curriculum, but which has a particular religious character and/or formal links with a religious or faith-based organisation. The term is most commonly applied to state funded faith schools, although many independent schools also have religious characteristics. There are various types of state-funded faith school, including Voluntary Aided (VA) schools, Voluntary Controlled (VC) schools, and Faith Academies.

Schools with a formal faith designation may give priority to applicants who are of the faith, and specific exemptions from Section 85 of the Equality Act 2010 enable them to do that. However, in the past, state-funded faith schools have always had to admit other applicants if they could not fill all of their places and must ensure that their admission arrangements comply with the School Admissions Code.

It appears that Church of England (CoE) primary schools have become increasingly ‘Goddy’ in recent years. Most primary schools have always gone in for plenty of praying and at least a bit of hymn singing. In the 1990s my headship secondary school drew its intake from a number of CoE and ‘county’ junior/primary schools, but the experience of ‘Goddyness’ on the part of pupils appeared to be much the same in all of them. As far as I was aware, our CoE feeder schools did not require parents to be married, attend church regularly or obtain a reference from the vicar. All this appears to be changing with local bishops often requiring a more robustly Christian approach in the culture of their CoE schools. This is despite the clearly expressed view of Archbishop Justin Welby that CoE schools should be more inclusive rather than less.

Both Labour and Conservative governments have generally supported compulsory daily acts of worship, RE lessons and faith schools. The current government seems set on encouraging more faith schools and giving them extra powers to limit the admission of pupils of different faiths or none. Although this remains deeply controversial, the Labour opposition seems reluctant to get involved.

What has been the effect of Academisation?

Both the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Churches were at first lukewarm about Academies, but now there are many CoE and RC Academy Trusts. There are also non-denominational evangelical Christian Academy Trusts.

It is clear that the present (2017) Conservative government is strongly committed to faith schools, wants more of them, and is open to their admissions arrangements being more exclusive.

This is contrary to the 1870 Education Act, Section 7 of which, entitled the ‘Conscience Clause’, was required to be displayed in a prominent position in every Elementary School. This included the following statements.

It shall not be required as a condition of any child admitted into or continuing in the school, that he 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 (Part 1).

Any scholar may be withdrawn by his parent from such observance or instruction without forfeiting any of the other benefits of the school (Part 2).

The school shall be open at all times to any of His Majesty’s Inspectors, so, however, that it shall be no part of the duties of such inspector to inquire into any instruction in religious subjects given at such school, or to examine any scholar therein in religious knowledge or in any religious subject or book (Part 3).

 I wrote about Section 7 here.

It is also the case that at least some clergy of the time had no problem with the principle of secular state education. The Reverend Richard Dawes graduated from Cambridge, and became a mathematical tutor and bursar. He was something of a radical and he upset his academic peers by advocating the admission of dissenters to the university.  In 1837, he left Cambridge to become a country vicar in the parish of King’s Somborne in Hampshire. He adopted a novel approach to teaching based on engaging pupils through the examples of the ‘common things’ found in their everyday lives, which were used as objects of study and experimentation. In this he was anticipating Piaget and the later developmentalists in his emphasis on grounding lessons in practical activities to provide a ‘concrete’ foundation for progression to abstract theorising. Having his pupils enthusiastically undertake practical activities in groups indicates a social approach quite different from the normal punishment driven, authoritarian instruction and repetition typical of the period that is so powerfully described in the contemporary works of Charles Dickens.

In 1847 he published his masterpiece, which is a teachers’ guide to how to implement his methods: Suggestive Hints towards improved Secular Instruction. Dawes insisted on cheap editions being widely available. Many editions were published. The 1857 7th edition can be viewed on-line here

Read more about the brilliant Richard Dawes here.

Not only do many faith schools fail to meet the former requirements of Section 7 of the 1870 Education Act, they also commonly fall short in teaching basic science in respect of the age of the earth, ‘Evolution by Natural Selection’ and anything else that their Principals, Governors and/or Academy Trusts feel is in conflict with their religious faith or teaching. Read about one example here and others here.

At the time of writing this article a conflict between Anderton Park Primary School in Birmingham and a number of it is mainly Muslim parents remains unresolved. The protests spread to Anderton Park from Parkfield Community School in Alum Rock, where parents raised a petition in January claiming some of the teaching contradicted Islam. The “No Outsiders” scheme, created by one of its teachers, Andrew Moffatt, had been running at the school since 2014. It was formed to educate children about the Equality Act, British values, and diversity, using storybooks to teach children about LGBT relationships, race, religion, adoption and disability. I will return to this specific issue in Part 2 : The role of parents and the state, to follow.

Neither Anderton Park, nor Parkfield Community Schools in Birmingham are faith schools, but there appear to be pressure groups that seek to convert some Local Authority (LA) Community Schools into Islamic faith schools by exploiting changing government policy in relation to faith schools.

I have seen literature from one such pressure group that seeks to target LA schools located within Muslim communities, where ‘white flight’ has resulted in their pupil populations becoming exclusively comprised of children with Muslim parents. Material published on the internet argues that such schools should be taken over by new Muslim Academy chains, within which all pupils and their teachers must adhere to the Muslim faith and accept the precepts of Sharia Law.

It is easy to see how inflammatory this could be in feeding the rhetoric of far right populist politicians. This is presumably why the government, through OfSTED, now requires the concept of ‘British Values’ to be taught in all schools. How can a direction of travel towards Muslim Academy Trusts be opposed while Church of England, Roman Catholic and Evangelical Academy Trusts are not only encouraged to proliferate, but given further freedoms to restrict the admission of children whose parents are from other faiths or none?

It seems to me that an updated version of Section 7 of the 1870 Education Act is badly needed. I have seen little about this in Labour’s education plans.







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1 Response to Priests, parents or the state: who should be responsible for children’s education? – Part 1: the role of religion

  1. This is no topic to be tackled by the faint hearted, Roger. So it is no surprise to me that you choose to do so. Vested interest in regard to this subject matter is generating toxic consequences in our nation almost equal to current opinions about Brexit.

    In answer to the question you pose, it is my considered opinion that it has to fall to the state, via a democratically accountable National Commission for Education Governance, to determine, in broad strokes, what is taught in ALL types of schools. As to the role of religious teaching in any form in education, it should play NONE. What we need school curricular to address is knowledge and understanding about the values that underpin our plural society. This can, and should be delivered via a comprehensively revised secular curriculum that explores a range of historical and current beliefs and philosophies representative of our time and culture. As this is a rather radical response to your excellent article, let me explain why I conclude thus.

    As you accurately describe, the growth of extreme religious views is increasing along with intolerance on a scale we cannot allow to go unaddressed. This maybe has its origins in the emergence of a troubling nihilistic world view. I would argue that declining levels of confidence in governments and other power-brokers lies at the heart of this trend. In any society, like ours, where inequality is a major issue, leaders have responsibility to act. The role of the state is, among others, to help establish and maintain a tolerant society based on a basic principle of ‘do no harm’. Even in moderate forms, ALL religions proclaim exclusivity in some form or another. Whenever such claims are a central tenet of a belief-set, the temptation to stray into extreme interpretations that inevitably exclude non-believers, sometimes threateningly, is almost inevitable.

    More than at any other time, I would argue, we need to ensure that state education is secular. If it should be determined that faith schools be allowed to continue to operate, they should attract no public funding of any sort and should be subject to scrutiny by HMI to ensure they do not operate counter to the established norms of a liberal democracy.


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