Faith schools should be community oriented, agrees archbishop

By staff writers
October 23, 2007

Publicly-funded schools sponsored by the church do not set out to indoctrinate pupils or promote a particular philosophy, says the Archbishop of Canterbury.

But critics, who come from both religious and non-religious perspectives, say that issues of selection on the basis of faith, employment policies and the impact of faith-based education on community cohesion need to be addressed.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's programme PM last Friday, Dr Rowan Williams said that faith schools were able to "think broadly" about education and the community because they have a wide vision which many people are a part of and believe in.

He added that all faith schools should be open and promote the fact that they are not there to "convert" pupils or "protect" their own community.

Faith schools should say: "We are here to serve the wider community and we are here to give you that broader view of humanity," he declared.

He also expressed concern over the current regime of testing taking place in all schools across the country, which has been criticized by teaching unions and parents. Dr Williams said that the frequency of exams was producing "anxious children".

The issue of over-assessment in schools has recently been highlighted by Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL). Following the publication of GCSE result achievement recently, the union voiced its concerns that there is too much testing within the schools system.

Earlier this year the Association of Teachers and Lecturers also produced a position paper calling for significant changes in policy relating to faith schools.

The 160,000-strong ATL (formerly the Assistant Masters and Mistresses Association) has a strong denominational school constituency. It “acknowledges the many strengths of faith schools” but describes serious concerns about cohesion, diversity, accountability and discrimination in selection and employment.

These concerns, the union points out, are issues consistently raised by parents, teachers and educationists from both religious and non-religious backgrounds. ATL’s paper identifies the challenges and makes suggestions for change.

The union believes any further public money should be conditional on reform and is concerned that the government is not addressing these issues in its current proposals to expand faith schools - which go against overall public opinion on the issue.

“What we want is for all children to have equal access to good local schools which promote equality – of belief, sexuality, race, gender – so our children grow up with a respect and understanding of other people”, explained policy adviser Alison Ryan.

Faith schools currently get grants from the state of up to 90% of the costs of school buildings and 100% of the running costs.

As a result of selective admissions pupils in faith schools are less likely to be entitled to free school meals, and are more likely to have English as their first language than the national average in schools across England, research suggests.

As well as discriminating in school admissions in favour of children of parents who attend churches linked to schools, many faith schools are allowed to discriminate when they are employ staff.

Voluntary-aided faith schools can stipulate the beliefs of all their employees, and the fully local authority funded voluntary controlled faith schools are allowed to determine the faith of their head teacher.

ATL has called for the level of school autonomy – over admissions and the curriculum – to depend on the school promoting community cohesion. It is also urging no extension of rights to be given to faith schools to refuse to employ staff on the basis of their religious belief. And it says schools which discriminate against potential pupils and staff should no longer be allowed state funding.

ATL's position statement on faith schools can be accessed here.

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