Over 30% of UK schools are faith schools but only 4% are truly secular. So how much religion will your child get at school?
There are more schools with religious character (faith schools) in the UK than most people realise. 95% of state schools in Northern Ireland, 34% in England, 15% in Scotland, 14% in Wales are faith schools. 42% of UK independent schools are faith schools.
That’s a lot of religion for a country where 6% of the population regularly attend church, mosque, synagogue or temple.
Why there are so many faith schools is partly for historic reasons; schools were established and owned by the churches. When they sold them to the State they did so on condition of retention of some influence. That’s why 98% of faith schools in the UK are Anglican or Catholic. Anglican schools outnumber Catholic schools by 2:1. 1% are other Christian denominations such as Methodist, Quaker, 7th day Adventist, Plymouth Brethren. 1% are other religions such as Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism. Faith schools are popular. Evidence suggests that most people think that the influence of religion is disproportionate in schools. But there is also a perception that they provide a “better” education. More on that in a Do church schools provide a better education?.
Religion influences six areas of schooling in faith schools
There are varying degrees of religious character in schools. Your child’s religious education may be a bit more than just a daily hymn and a weekly RE lesson.
Broadly speaking, religion influences six specific areas of schooling in a faith school. These are the curriculum, the religious studies syllabus, the teaching of creationism, the nature of collective worship, the appointing of governors and teachers and pupil admissions policy.
The more religious a school, the more the influence of each of these six considerations. You can think of it as four degrees of religious influence; (nearly) faith free, faith lite, faith heavy and faith first.
For state schools the degree of religious influence depends on the type of school. Community Schools and Integrated Schools (in Northern Ireland) have no (very little) religious character (faith free). Voluntary Controlled and Foundation Schools have a bit (faith lite). Voluntary Aided Schools have a lot (faith heavy). Academies vary but retain the religious character of the school they succeeded.
Independent schools fit any of the four categories. Because they can pretty much do what they like, they can observe as much or as little religion as they please. It is no surprise therefore that some of the most secular schools are independent. And, at the other end of the scale, some of the more fundamentalist religious schools are independent. Unlike in state schools, independent schools can teach creationism or intelligent design as scientifically valid.
But, because they rely on fee income, independent schools respond to market forces. If the punters want to pay for a bit of fire and brimstone they will. Otherwise they’ll go to the “happy clappy” school down the road. 42% of independent schools are nominally faith schools. But I think that only 11% of pupils are in a faith heavy or faith first school.
Secular or faith free schools
These are the 66% of state schools and the 58% of independent schools that are nominally secular. The bad news for those seeking a truly secular state education is that they aren’t secular at all. All state schools must teach Religious Education according to an agreed syllabus which is “spirit and values” in nature. And all state schools must provide a daily act of collective worship which must be at least “broadly Christian in character”. However, Governors and staff are appointed irrespective of religious beliefs. And the local education authority sets admissions policies, not the church.
The truism that nothing in life is for free certainly holds for state faith free schools. There is a bit of religion there. Only independent schools can provide a truly secular education.
Voluntary Controlled, Foundation or faith lite schools
“Faith lite” schools are typically Voluntary Controlled and Foundation Schools. They differ from secular schools in that they may collectively worship according to their religious denomination. Also they may teach the doctrines and dogma of their religious denomination. The religious cultures of the schools are helped in that 20% of teachers and 25% of governors may be selected on religious grounds. Admissions policies for 75% of Voluntary Controlled schools in England are determined by the local education authority. But for the remaining 25% the school sets admissions policies with the result that the school feels more faith heavy.
Voluntary Aided or faith heavy schools
These have a significant religious influence. It derives, in part, from the 50% of governors and staff appointed (and promoted) on religious grounds.
But it is the pupil admissions policies that really sets faith heavy schools apart. In Voluntary Aided schools and their successor academies, school governors set admissions policies. They can select pupils on religious grounds if the schools are oversubscribed. Which they often are.
Faith first schools
If your faith is the most important aspect of your identity, then you’ll most likely want to send your child to a school that better represents your world view, community and cultural heritage. Faith is everything in these schools and sets the academic agenda. For example, if I were Orthodox Jewish I might consider a (private) school which taught a Jewish curriculum (Kodesh) in Yiddish in the morning and a secular curriculum (Chol) in the afternoon. Similarly if I were Muslim I might consider a (usually private) school which devotes more time to The Qur’an, Islamic Studies and Arabic. Likewise, there are (private) Christian schools who teach a more God centric curriculum such as the Accelerated Christian Education curriculum.
“Faith first” schools are a minority. In fact they are barely 1% of all faith schools and less than 0.4% of all UK schools. And since they offer a different curriculum they have to be independent.
So if you want a truly secular education then you have to choose an independent school. For an immersive “faith first” education it’s the same; an independent school. If you want a state education you’ll have to accept at least a bit of religious influence.