Matthew vs Melissa: Is there a place for faith schools in modern society?

Matthew and Melissa

Columnists Matthew Munson and Melissa Todd have decided to cross swords again.

This time the issue is faith schools and whether they have a place in today’s education system. Here are their opinions but do you agree with either of them?

Melissa says:

Faith schools seem a complete anathema in 2018. No one believes in anything anymore. Why, even iPhones have lost their halo. Politicians have let us down, over and over; no one believes they’ll get a good education, a good job, or even if they do, that there’ll be a good pension at the end of it, nor a good care home to ease us from our final moments. What can we believe in?

I don’t know. Genuinely, I’ve no idea. But I want the question put to our children.

Religion is problematic, I realise – people are blown up for its sake every day. Religious bigots tend to be stupid, and worse, boring. But then, staunch atheists have a tendency to be rather boring too, in their fanatical allegiance to science and nihilism, and they haven’t even the excuse of stupidity.

And while religion gets a bad press, many of the tragedies of the last few centuries have derived from the evisceration of religious thought and practise, and the dogmatic pursuit of political and economic ideals instead.

How well I remember my son ending his first day at school and telling me he had to read for fifteen minutes a day “so he could get a good job”. I found it hard to take any of his schooling seriously after that. Any institution that claims reading is a chore, something one must undertake stoically, regretfully, simply for one’s own good, akin to eating sprouts or flossing, does not deserve to be taken seriously.

Education should not be about fixing children up to get good jobs and be good little consumer units. Education should guide a search for wisdom, sate young people’s yearning for a life lived meaningfully and well.

Religious teaching is well placed to assist here. It’s spent millennia engaged in intellectual enquiry and debate, trying to answer the big questions – why we’re here, what’s our purpose, how we should best spend our days. Whether you agree with any of the answers, I hope we can agree that the questions are worth asking. Otherwise, you’re left with nothing to believe in but the latest iPhone, which is, incidentally, rubbish.

So much great literature demands a sound working knowledge of the Bible. Try fathoming Hardy, or Wordsworth, or Milton, or heck, Philip Pullman, without knowing something about Christianity. Can’t be done.

People of religious faith on average report a higher level of happiness and life satisfaction, and also cope better with stress and upheaval. They tend to give more to charity. They practise gratitude; they remain filled with wonder at the secrets the universe holds; they understand contentment. They have an answer for the babbling nonsense that ricochets through our heads at every waking moment – wanting this, worrying about that. Instead, Lord, make me an instrument of your peace: for it is in giving that we receive, it is in self-forgetting that one finds.

I’d much rather my son had learnt that, rather than how to slot seamlessly into the system.

Matthew says:

Faith schools are such a ubiquitous part of our education system that we often just accept them as normal – but why do we? Why is it normal to have a religious faith sponsoring a school, and why are some faith schools (C of E and Catholic in particular) often considered more socially “normal” over Islamic schools? In fact, all faith schools teach a particular level of faith above and beyond what is taught in the religious studies classes of secular schools.

Such schools limit choice for parents who do not want a religious education for their children, or do not share the school’s faith. Research from the National Secular Society has shown that 18,000 families were assigned faith schools against their wishes in England in 2017 alone.

In a religiously-plural 21st century, faith schools do not belong in our education system. There are occasions when they simply aren’t in step with the modern values we’ve worked so hard to shape. Take the occasion where an ultra-orthodox private Jewish school in north London tried to ban female drivers from dropping their children off at the gates. The school quite rightly apologised, after being told such a ban was unlawful. Incidentally, that school was rated “good” by Ofsted and praised for teaching British values.

More worrying was the revelation that, at another school, a female governor was required to sit in a separate room during meetings and had to talk through an open doorway. Recently, Ofsted announced that six private Muslim schools in the East End of London were failing to promote British values. At one, pupils thought they could not participate in music or dance; at another, pupils believed women should “stay at home and clean”. In some schools, pupils were segregated at break times.

But, the counter-argument might well go, these sorts of cases are in the minority; the majority of faith schools represent the views of the majority of people in the country. But when only 7.4% of adults in England go to church on an average Sunday, Christian schools cannot serve the whole community. Neither do they respect the right of children to choose their own belief – or lack thereof; how can students understand the meaning of choice if they are only given a particular view of faith?

It’s understandable that, with over 6,000 publicly-funded Christian schools, members of other faiths are demanding public funds for their faith to run schools. But just because something is understandable doesn’t make it right; the desires of particular faith communities shouldn’t override the right of children to have an education that opens their eyes to the world.

Parents have a right to teach their children about the faith of their family. However, it is not the job of publicly-funded schools to instil a religious faith in children, and we are not obliged to provide schools that cater for every shade of belief or philosophy.

As the British Humanist Association states; “The state has its own interest in ensuring that children grow up to be responsible and capable citizens. It must design a system of education that serves that end, as well as promoting the interests of children.”

One in five young people still lack basic skills in maths and science by age 15, and one in five leaves primary school unable to read properly. Faith schools continue to prosper because parents erroneously believe they offer higher standards. They might be smaller and promote religious values, but they breed an inward-looking view of the world, and one that is often anti-British.

The teaching of basic morals is not the domain of faith schools. All schools teach children values such as honesty, integrity, compassion, tolerance, and many others. There is no evidence that faith schools do it better.

In order to fight extremism, we need dialogue – to educate students about other faiths and customs. Many faith schools promote a blinkered, narrow view of British life. They are not interested in free debate or explaining fundamental British values such as equality for all and a religiously and culturally free society.

Is there a place for faith schools in our education system?

I agree with Melissa
I agree with Matthew
Not sure
Created with QuizMaker


  1. Defending faith schools, Melissa Todd claims they promote intellectual enquiry. Perhaps that’s why religious faith continues to decline as the state throws more and more money at faith schools.

  2. Melissa – yes religion engages with so big questions but it doesn’t try and find out what the answer is, instead it tries to force that flavor of answer on to the question.

    Philosophy and science engage in big questions in far more meaningful ways and with a goal of finding an answer questions such as how we, life and the universe came to be, what is consciousness, what are truth and knowledge?

    And the wonder and awe inspired by engaging with and understanding these questions in a deep and meaningful way far surpasses giving up and saying good did it.

  3. Religion should be ridiculed out of existance in the classroom. Instead of cherry picked passages, children in schools should be told about all the contradictions and absurdities in the bible, there are plenty of them.

Comments are closed.