Big debate: Religion and education

Children in school

Children in school - Credit: Archant

This week, Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association, and Haydn Evans, headmaster of Sir John Cass Foundation and Red Coats School in Stepney Way, debate religion and education.

Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association

Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association - Credit: Archant

Andrew Copson, chief executive, British Humanist Association

Haydn Evans, headmaster Sir John Cass Foundation

Haydn Evans, headmaster Sir John Cass Foundation - Credit: Archant

How can it be right for a four year old child to be refused entrance to their local state-funded school, simply because their parents are of the “wrong” religion, or have no religion?

I don’t think that is at all fair because the evidence shows that such admissions policies segregate communities along socio-economic, as well as religio-ethnic grounds.

This is because faith-based admissions criteria are often burdensome to meet in a way that allows more motivated parents to gain their child a place by attending church when they otherwise wouldn’t, while the single mother working several jobs doesn’t have the time to do likewise.

And yet over one million school places in England are allocated on just such a basis by religious schools that are entirely or virtually entirely state funded; almost two million places are at faith schools in total.

To put these figures into context, the Church of England now has more children worshipping in its school every weekday than they have parishioners on the pews on any given Sunday.

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Which brings us on to another problem: religious schools can teach from a narrow, unshared perspective on matters of faith and in areas such as sex education, denying young people the chance to learn about others’ beliefs and form their own opinions on such matters.

Should the state be propping up certain religions in such a manner?

Is it justified that about 70,000 teaching jobs can be religiously restricted (for many schools, that means every single teacher) in order to “maintain the ethos” of these schools?

It would be much better if all our schools were equally inclusive of every young person and teacher, learning with and from each other in a manner that would surely result in a more harmonious and caring society.

Haydn Evans, headmaster of Sir John Cass Foundation and Red Coats School

The Church of England was involved in education before the beginning of state education. The National Society was founded in 1811, with the aim of providing schools for poor children, who previously had no access to teaching. There has always been a history of inclusion within CofE schools, with an aim to provide, through respect for all, an education for all.

My school is typical of CofE schools, in that it is representative of its local community. It reserves only 18 per cent of its cohort for students of any Christian denomination. Over 80pc of our pupils are not Christian, reflecting the make-up of our local community here in Stepney.

Where children benefit in a CofE school, such as Sir John Cass, is from the confidence, independence and love of learning born of the ethos of the school. Faith promotes security and wellbeing, respect for all and therefore confidence and independence. Excellent teaching encourages a love of learning and this together with the ethos of our school is crucial to generating independent learners.

A very high proportion of students are successful at GCSEs, including maths, English and the sciences. Many of our students progress to A-level and university in medicine and a range of related subjects. The premise upon which science is taught is not creationist or distorted by religious belief. Our beliefs about scientific concepts are no different to those of teachers in any other state school. Similarly, sex education is not taught or learned on the basis of prejudice or dogma, rather in the context of love, mutual respect, trust and the responsible context of the family. We promote a well-rounded education.

It is the ethos of the school and its promotion and development of a well-rounded education, not religious dogma or directive that is the basis of many religious schools like ours. Indeed, just last week a YouGov survey reported in the Times (Faith schools chosen for quality, not religion, p32, 20/09/13 ) showed that parents are now choosing to send children to faith schools because of the academic standards they generate. Academic standards, I would suggest, that arise from their excellent teaching and ethos of mutual respect.