Religion and schools

We have heard recently pleas for church schools to be open to those of all or no religions and for a ban on giving preference to children from families with a religious faith.  I am not deeply religious and I am not a church goer but I believe strongly that:

  • parents who do have strong religious beliefs should be able to send their children to a school that will strengthen and support them;
  • faith schools perform consistently better than secular schools. We should be identifying what it is that gives them this edge and seeking to lift up the performance of other schools not push down to a lowest common denominator.

Of course those driven by the equalities agenda will say how unfair it is that children whose parents care about learning can gain an advantage over those for whom school was a bad experience and who have no interest in their children’s schooling. This is true but it is no answer to reduce the life chances of children from supportive households by insisting on admission policies that demand the blind equality of the lottery to allocate school places.

When I visit schools, I am frequently struck by the presence or absence of symbolism in many of them. Go to a Catholic school and there, in the entrance lobby, will be a crucifix or a statue of the Virgin Mary, making a statement about the beliefs and ethos of the school community.

Go to a Moslem or Jewish school and their beliefs will shout at you from dress style through furnishings and cleanliness to respect for the sacred writings of their faith and their religious symbols. Secularists will hate it but no-one is asking them to send their children to one of these schools.

If you go to a secular school, what will you see as symbolic of its ethos? A picture of the Queen? Hardly ever. The country’s flag? Just about never. A health and safety notice? Quite often!

Symbols don’t guarantee adherence to an ethos and shared values but they can help. Lots of schools exhibit children’s art in their reception area and corridors. I think this works if the displays are based on excellence and they are hung well. If every child’s art is hung whether inspirational, average or awful; if the displays are tatty, the result is awful. It speaks of the relentless search for mind-numbing equality and a failure to understand the powerful message of quality, whether quality of art or quality of display.

To return to where I started, who has primary responsibility for the welfare of their children?  Surely it is parents?  If those parents have strongly held beliefs whether religious, political, moral or social, are they entitled to inculcate them in their children?  Of course they are!  Will their children blindly accept and follow them?  Very often not!  They will rebel, particularly where the inculcation is forcefully done.  Who else can stand in loco parentis and shape the minds of youngsters?  The state?  God forbid!   TV, cinema and pop culture?   God help us!  The top shelf of the local newsagents?  Surely not!

About Keith R Mitchell CBE

Qualified as a Chartered Accountant in 1967. Pursued a successful career in financial training and publishing until selling his interests in 1990. Elected a County Councillor for the Bloxham Division in 1989. Leader of Oxfordshire County Council 5 November 2001 to 15 May 2012. Chairman of the South East England Regional Planning Committee July 2002 to July 2005. Chairman of the South East England Regional Assembly July 2005 to July 2008. In HM the Queen’s 2007 Birthday Honours, appointed a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in recognition of services to local government.
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