Yesterday I caught the repeat of BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions. You can probably get it on iPlayer for the next few days.
On the panel was Christopher Jamison, a Catholic Priest. Read all about him here if you can bear it. During the question on Baroness Warsi’s recent remarks about being mean to Muslims being socially acceptable, he tried to argue that the best way to ensure that a minority becomes integrated and trusted is to fund their schools. At this point there was loud barracking from the audience and cries of “Shame”. I think only Eric Pickles defending the Government’s NHS plans got a more noisy response. Surveys have shown that the public at large do not like faith schools and don’t want any more of them. But all Governments see determined to push more of them on us.
When is a political party going to start reflecting the public view of this? Ed Miliband has his famous “blank piece of paper” and Nick Clegg will have to start making his policies look different from Tory ones at some point.
Well, after my quick comment on this last week, I thought I’d better watch it. If you didn’t you can catch up on iPlayer.
Although not about faith schools they did appear prominently. In fact, I found the whole thing quite depressing. The UK’s schools admissions systems is not only distorted by faith schools but there are also catchment areas and, in some places, grammar schools to consider. (Let’s not even get into private education.)
Each of these has it’s own insidious effect I would imagine. Grammar schools – all very well if your child passes the 11+ but what if she doesn’t? What if (as I believe happens) one of your children passes and the other doesn’t? Catchment areas? The best schools are in the more affluent areas due to the intake, so more parents want to move there, so house prices rise, and so on.
The programme was (in the first episode at least) just a presentation of what actually happens. Although this gives the lie to the Government’s “parental choice” mantra it doesn’t go anywhere towards looking at what can be done to improve the system. It did not address this question at all with respect to faith schools or grammar schools. There was an attempt to ask about the fairness of catchment areas when they questioned the woman who was in charge of admissions in Birmingham1 if she sympathised with parents giving false addresses to get the schools they wanted.
I hope that the subsequent programmes in this series look at this – or it will be a glaring omission. It seems to me that the inequalities created by faith schools are the least justified and the most easily addressed. Opponents of grammar schools may feel the same way, but I haven’t looked into this. Catchment areas are probably the hardest problem to address.
It’s worth contrasting with the recent Dawkins film where just one problem with the admissions system was looked at and – crucially – the questions of fairness, the impact on teaching some subjects, and social cohesion were examined.
1 This was the funniest moment in the film. When she was going about spying on houses to see if the child really did live where the parents said they did, she said something like “we do this to help parents identify where they live”. No you don’t. The parents know damn well where they live: you’re doing it to identify parents who are lying on their application form!
Just a quick thought. The BBC are doing a School Season of programmes devoted to education and the tough choices parents have to make.
So far, however, I don’t see that the topic of faith schools merits a programme to itself or even a mention in the blurb of any of the programmes on the site for the Season. Hopefully it will get some coverage in the programmes themselves.
Given the news coverage faith schools get – both pro and anti – this looks like an omission. Secular organisations like the British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society often complain about the pro-religion agenda of the BBC and I am beginning to think they have a point.
Here’s a programme I intend to watch tonight. More 4 today, Wednesday 18 August at 9pm. I guess it will also be on 4OD later.
It’s the Dawkins on Faiths schools documentary mentioned earlier. It will be interesting to see the angles covered: bias in science lessons is likely as Dawkins is a scientist, but I would also like to see discussion of the admissions process and, hopefully, some probing questions to politicians. Why does no major political party oppose faith schools even though the majority of the public don’t want them?
UPDATE: I thought it was very good indeed. I think Dawkins managed to put the case across very well and none of the pro-faith schools arguments were in the least bit convincing. Things I liked best:
The Church of England’s spokesperson who argued that children needed to “experience” faith “lived” at school as part of the justification for forced, collective worship. Weasel words indeed.
The couple who had it hinted to them that they should help pay for repairs to the church roof to get the vicars letter. In fairness, the church is question disputed it, but there are similar stories in a recent Government investigation into admissions policies.
The Muslim science teacher who couldn’t answer the “Why are there still apes?” creationist canard. I’m not suggesting – and nor did the film – that all faith schools science teaching is like this. But with areas of the curriculum controlled and inspected by a faith organisation this is a danger.
Finally, I found the interview with Charles Clarke the most revealing. (Was he the only politician to be asked for an interview, I wonder.) He’d gone from opposing all faith schools to allowing new ones – on the grounds of fairness to all faiths. His argument that abolishing faith schools would close 4,000 schools was pathetic. No, it wouldn’t, it would change their character by taking control of admissions and RE away from them.
I suspect politicians are afraid of the flack they’d get from closing faith schools not that that there’s any real practical difficulty involved. I’ve written before about the hysterical pro-faith coverage in a some newspapers when they perceive faith schools as being under attack. Ed Balls has said that his worst time as Minister for Education was when he tried to make some (not that far reaching) changes to the admissions policies of faith schools.