Should there be any faith schools in the UK? One straightforward view is that the answer to this question is ‘no’, that religion has no place in education, and certainly no place in an education which is condoned by or even supported by the state. But there is at least a pragmatic response to this answer, which is that we already have a large number of religiously based schools; for example, a large proportion of primary schools in the UK are Church of England schools. So getting rid of all religiously based schools would be a major move.
What if a test was applied to see if such a move might be necessary? So, let’s start by considering why might there be objections to the state condoning or supporting religiously based schools. The very basis of the state supporting a range of schools from different religions, as well of course many entirely secular schools, is tolerance for ideas of religious freedom, freedom of thought and of conscience, within an open and democratic society.
The first basic thing then to consider would be whether a religious school taught its pupils in ways which were inconsistent with these very ideals, hence undermining a premise upon which the existence of such schools depends. If religious doctrine as taught in the school did not allow adherents of its religion freedom of conscience, including complete freedom to leave the religion, that would therefore be inconsistent with the widely held ideals which allow different religious expressions.
More broadly, if a school did not teach its pupils the ability to reason and to think critically, this also undermines the very basis of our democratic ideals. This is a strong ideal – the teaching of critical thinking is arguably in a pretty parlous state – but at the very least, a school should recognise basic tenets of reason, logic, scientific method, empirical inquiry and intellectual curiosity in various disciplines more broadly.
If religious doctrine is incompatible with basic respect for the rule of law, then likewise, there is no earthly reason why the state should support any schools based on that religion. Of course, since we live in a democracy, it is perfectly right and proper for a school to encourage pupils to think about what changes to the law might be needed or desirable, and to equip them with the means to consider such questions in an informed manner, as well as to consider the very basis of government and citizenship. Furthermore, religions will often require of their adherents behaviour which goes beyond that required by law or the general mores of society; a religion may think of religious commands as ‘higher’ than earthly law; but this is not the same as considering that religious commands are incompatible with a state’s laws, except perhaps on occasion or in extremis as in vicious dictatorships or fascist regimes. However, a school has no business in undermining respect for the rule of law per se, and certainly not if it expects support from the state. So, any religion which teaches its followers that they should have no respect for the law of the land, or should obey an incompatible set of laws, therefore, and quite obviously, deserves no support from the very state which they are thereby actively undermining.
At the very basis of our laws is a fundamental ideal of equality; that people are all to be treated in an impartial and fair manner; laws concerning discrimination recognise this explicitly, and the whole basis of human rights legislation rests upon a notion of the equality of persons. Now, naturally, there are different views on how exactly this equality should be realised in practice, just as there are different views about how exactly human rights should be understood. But given that some basic understanding of equal respect is critical to our whole democracy and legal system, and furthermore, is used in any justification for the very existence of religious schools, any religiously based school which did not recognise such basic equality undermines any case for its state support and toleration. Now, again, there is a line to be drawn between expressing views and implementing policy. (For example, someone who privately considered that mothers of young children ought to be at home looking after them might nonetheless scrupulously stick to legislation and policy concerning maternity leave and discrimination against women.) But a school which, based upon religious doctrine, did not treat all its pupils equally should not receive state endorsement. Harder to navigate are questions of what a religious school might teach about the status of others. Suppose a religion discriminated against those who are not adherents? Well, this would be a large problem if any non-adherents attend this school, and any such discrimination should not be tolerated. But what about those beyond the school walls? As I consider this question, I can feel in myself a visceral reaction against any doctrine or dogma which does not consider all of humanity to be in some fundamentally important way to be of equal value. A religion may warn that there are consequences for certain behaviours or beliefs of non-adherents or imperfectly adherent followers. But this is not the same as valuing less those who behave in certain ways or who lack certain beliefs. So, consider a religion which taught that some are more important, more beloved by God, perhaps, than others, or even that some other people are less than human? If the school nonetheless teaches pupils to adhere to equal treatment as laid down by current laws, then perhaps this is enough? For those of us who have had drummed into us the idea that we are all equal in the eyes of god, or from the point of view of the universe, or from the point of view of human rights legislation, views which depart from this are extremely challenging. Certainly, if active discrimination or attacks on non-adherents is advocated, this could pass beyond free expression of religious views to endorsement of breaking the law. So it would be nonsensical for the state to support or condone a religious school which advocated such levels of discrimination.
So, if a religiously based school provides a well-rounded education, turning out pupils who are interested in the world, who can reason, research, debate, consider different points of view, who are generally respectful of the rule of law, of democracy, of freedom of speech and expression, who are respectful of others, and who treat people without discrimination, then, why not just leave them to it. Otherwise, schools should summoned to the Head Teacher’s Office for a Serious Talking To. And probably stripped of state support.