What’s so bad about religious schools?

October 6, 2015

Why shouldn't parents be free to send their kids to a religious school if they so wish? Even many non-religious folk seem to think, 'Where's the harm?'
I think we suffer from the anaesthetic of familiarity when it comes to religious schools. There was a time when slavery was such a familiar part of the cultural landscape that many didn't notice how awful it was. The same is true of sexist attitudes towards women. Looking back, it's hard to understand how we failed to see the indignity that was right before our eyes. I suspect many will look back in a couple of hundred years' time and be similarly baffled by our currently very relaxed attitudes towards religious schools.
Here's an analogy I've used to explain why I suspect there's probably a lot more wrong with faith schools than most of us currently think.
Suppose political schools suddenly started opening up and down the country. A Marxist school opens in one neighbourhood, followed by a neo-conservative school in the next. Soon there are schools catering to every political persuasion.
Suppose these political schools select on the basis of parent's political beliefs. Non-communist kids aren't welcome at the Marxist school. Left-wing kids are turned away from the neo-con academy.
Suppose these school begin each day with rousing political anthems. Children assemble in rows to recite political maxims that they have learned by heart.
These schools devote time each day to teaching the school's political philosophy. In many, care is taken not to expose children to other, conflicting political beliefs that may only 'confuse' them, especially early on.
Portraits of political leaders beam down from classroom walls. There's a smiling Margaret Thatcher hanging in every classroom of one, while Karl Marx frowns down from the corridors of another.
Teachers, and especially head teachers, are selected on the basis of their political views, and political parties donate time and money to the schools' upkeep.
What would be our attitude to the arrival of such schools?
Many of us would be horrified, and rightly so. These are the kind of schools you find in totalitarian political systems, such as Stalin's Russia or Mao's China. Indeed, they employ many of the same 'educational' techniques.
Surely, these political schools threaten to undermine any healthy democracy by suppressing free thought and factionalizing the next generation.
Yet if we cross out 'politcal' and write 'religious' in my description of them, we find that thousands of these schools already exist across the West. In fact, in the UK, my taxes go towards funding them. People are amazingly relaxed about their existence. But why? If the political versions of such schools are clearly toxic, why are the religious versions acceptable, even desirable?
Perhaps some will suggest that religion is different. But how?
For notice just how political most religions are. Religions form powerful political lobbies and wield great political influence. And religious beliefs are often highly political. Consider religious views on the role of women, on those less fortunate, on abortion, on gay people, on foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere. For the most part, religious organisations are political organisations and their schools are political schools.
So why are so many of us so relaxed about them?


#1 Philip Rand (Guest) on Wednesday October 07, 2015 at 5:20am

So, let me get this clear…

You have spent most of your working life at Heythrop College, right?

Heythrop College is run by Jesuits…it even trains Catholic priests…it is a “religious” school..

And yet for all this time my taxes (and yours) have been funding the place via Hefce…

So, it would appear that in the past you were pretty relaxed at receiving state funding for a religious school…

So, why the problem now?

#2 Gabriel (Guest) on Wednesday October 07, 2015 at 7:59am

@Philip Rand: I wonder why do you care so much about the personal circumstances of the author of the article. The only relevant issue here is whether he’s right or wrong. The rest is petty drama. (Why don’t you tackle that issue? Probably because you don’t agree with him, he is obviously right and you have no reasonable arguments to offer.)

#3 Philip Rand (Guest) on Wednesday October 07, 2015 at 8:38am

OK… I take your point Gabriel…

But, what about this… Dr Law has stated (quote):

“Heythrop is a unique and valuable institution. And philosophy and theology are unique and valuable subjects.”, i.e. a religious institution

“Heythrop is an extraordinary place and it’s time the college received the recognition it deserves.”

“That is something we are now working on vigorously. Heythrop is one of British academia’s best-kept secrets and we are going to ensure that it is a secret no longer.”

“Next year, this college is, believe it or not, 400 years old. Our 400th anniversary gives us an excellent opportunity to promote and celebrate this college. I very much hope to see many of you here to celebrate our anniversary with us.”

He believes “theology” is important…he believes his school (being primarily a theological school) is important…he believes the “tradition” of the school is important for the UK…

And yet he is criticising in his article the very kind of institution he is a contributing member.

I am not arguing against him…I believe his college is important…and I believe it should get state funding…

I just don’t understand how he can both condemn and support a religious school at the same time…

Can you?

#4 Gabriel (Guest) on Wednesday October 07, 2015 at 9:12am

Again: I-do-not-care. Let’s imagine for the sake of the argument that Stephen Law is an hypocritical monster, the epitome of evil: I don’t care (here, now). The issue is whether he is right or wrong. If you want to change the subject and discuss any other issue I won’t stop you, but I won’t follow you either.

#5 Philip Rand (Guest) on Wednesday October 07, 2015 at 9:20am

Besides Gabriel…

What exactly is wrong about “political” schools?

My wife teaches in English in a North Oxford (the posh bit of Oxford) secondary school… and many of the parents in the catchment are probably all “Corbyn” supporters…

I mean, Dr Law wants big “S” Secular schools?

Is a Secular school non-political agenda? I don’t thinks so…

So, what is the difference

I am sure in North Oxford they would love the opportunity to get a state funded “socialist” free-school…

I don’t see any problem with this…

#6 Mario (Guest) on Wednesday October 07, 2015 at 1:52pm

Philip, thanks for your excellent points.  And, good job countering Gabriel’s personal attacks (e.g.,” Probably because you don’t agree with him, he is obviously right and you have no reasonable arguments to offer”).  I usually lose my patience after a couple seconds of that stuff.

#7 Stephen Law (Guest) on Thursday October 08, 2015 at 4:03am

Hi Phillip. (i) Heythrop is not a school. Children go to schools. Heythrop educates adults who choose to go there (rather than being sent by their parents). (ii) Heythrop does not do any of the objectionable things I listed that religious schools typically do (our students don’t have to study or even think about religion at all, there’s no rote learning, there’s no selection on religious grounds, there’s no collective hymn singing, prayer required, etc. etc.). So, pretty obviously, it’s not any sort of counter-example.

#8 Philip Rand (Guest) on Thursday October 08, 2015 at 10:24pm

On the one hand you are “relaxed” contributing to the professional development of priests(tax subsidised)

At the same time you wish to restrict this professional development of which you have contributed of priests working at schools (tax subsidised).

That was my point…

#9 Robin Crosse (Guest) on Friday October 09, 2015 at 11:26am

Philip, that’s secularism. If an adult wants to study to become a priest then they are entitled to the same treatment as an adult who wants to study to become a teacher/English graduate/scientist.

The issue, as I see it, isn’t religion in elective education, to oppose that would infringe personal liberty, but state-funded indoctrination in compulsory education.

#10 Philip Rand (Guest) on Saturday October 10, 2015 at 2:10am

Yes Robin I do see your point… however, the main thrust of Dr Law’s article centres around two concepts:

1/ State funded religious primary schools… what he means here is that all primary educational schools receiving state funding should be Secular.

2/ The “relaxed attitude” of the general public towards state funded religious primary schools… what he means here is “aspect-blindness”.

His main contention against state funded religious primary schools is that they create factionalism.

However, the nature of a democracy IS that it is factional… no factions means no democracy.

So, the factional argument is a red-herring (unless of course one wishes to live in a totalitarian state).

Now, to write that no state funded political education exists is incorrect.

For example, the Ruskin College in Oxford is fundamentally a college that has a “socialist” political agenda. 

It is adult education BUT in reality the issue Dr Law is raising should apply to ANY educational establishment whether it is for children or adults, i.e. if an educational school/college has a particular political/religious view it wishes to promote then it should not receive state funding.

I believe it is important not to differentiate between state funding for child and adult education, i.e. it is not consistent.

What Dr Law is attempting to do is to differentiate between state funded religious primary schools and state funded religious colleges.

Because it is clear that Heythrop College is a state funded Religious College (the religious caricature Dr Law presents that Heythrop College does not fulfil is not the point).

One just has to examine the main purposes of the College as follows:

“Firstly, to provide opportunities for the study, teaching and research of Theology and Philosophy in a way that promotes a more profound knowledge and understanding of Christian revelation and of those matters connected with it; to enunciate systematically the truths contained therein, to consider in the light of revelation the most recent progress of the sciences and to present them effectively to the people of today.”

“Secondly, to provide students with an education in Catholic doctrine in the first, second and third cycles; to prepare them to carry out their future tasks effectively and to provide for the continuing education of the ministers of the Church.”

“Thirdly, to collaborate closely in the work of evangelization with the Hierarchy and with the local and the universal Church (SC3).”

“Fourthly, to establish fruitful collaboration with other ecclesiastical faculties and with non-ecclesiastical faculties and centres of Theology and Philosophy.”

So, the College he lectures is pretty “hard-core” Religious…

So, then it would appear that what Dr Law is taking issue with is that it is OK for a Religious College to be state funded in a Secular state (equally for a Poltical College)… BUT it is not OK for a religious primary school to be state funded.

What he espouses is that all state funded primary schools be “Secular”… but, isn’t this because that is the type of primary school he would want for his children?

And isn’t that a parental choice?

All he is really saying in the article is that only a Secular school should be state funded and this is the type of school he wants for his children… any other type of school he would not want to send his children, ergo all other parents should not have a choice… unless they want to pay for it… BUT then, he isn’t keen on independent schools (i.e. independent schools are for the rich)… so it all gets rather murky and inconsistent…

Again, it is an interesting issue…

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