Tuesday, November 02, 2010

No free ride

I’m quite proud of my home county.  North Yorkshire County Council is proposing to stop paying for children to travel to a faith school if it is not the closest school to their home.

Currently, children ordinarily attend the school closest to their home or one otherwise designated the ‘normal’ school by the council.  The council will pay for the child’s travel to and from that school with certain caveats.  In some cases, parents can make a case to the council that their child should instead attend a more distant school and if the council agrees, it will pay for the child’s travel to that school instead.

Alternatively, parents can choose to enrol their child in a private school.  In these cases, the child does not qualify for free transport.

This all seems perfectly fair and reasonable.  It is consistent with the goals of providing equal access to education and of enabling a marketplace for private education.  It does not discriminate against children who attend private schools because it doesn’t change those children’s rights to free travel to their local school.  They’re just waiving that right by attending a different school instead.

However, as in so many cases, the rules change when the spectre of faith schools rears its ugly head.  More on the downright unfairness of UK faith schools in a moment, but the particular unfairness I’m interested in here is this one:  if parents choose to send their child to a faith school, they can automatically expect free transport even if it isn’t the closest school to their home.

In other words, children of religious parents are entitled to benefits that children of non-religious parents are not.  To be sure, it’s not quite as simple as that.  Not all religious parents have the opportunity to enrol their children in faith schools and many don’t wish to.  Conversely, there are sure to be children in faith schools who do not have religious parents.  I’m not arguing that all religious parents automatically have an additional right.  I’m arguing that it’s religion itself that is once again privileged.  Students who do attend faith schools receive an additional right simply because of the faith aspect. 

This might not seem like a big deal in itself, but it’s yet another example of the entirely unfair and inexplicable privileging of religion.  It means that children can attend schools they couldn’t otherwise afford to solely on the basis of their parents’ belief or professed belief.  This option wouldn’t be open to my children.  Not that I’d want to send them to a faith school, of course, but I might want to make choices about which school my child attends on other grounds. Academic grounds, for example: shouldn’t I expect the same benefits?

North Yorkshire County Council is – as far as I’m aware – the first to address this situation.  It’s proposing that children shouldn’t get free travel to a faith school if it is not their local or otherwise designated ‘normal’ school.  This is a cost-saving measure rather than an anti-religious one, but it seems well targeted.  It’s hard to imagine what legitimate objection there could be, especially when the alternative is cutting funding for school travel for disabled children.

No doubt the religious will come up with objections anyway.  The only one I’ve seen so far is from a Church of England vicar who says that the council hasn’t considered the full impact of the proposal and that – inexplicably – student numbers will fall in both faith and non-faith schools as a result.  Since every child has to attend a school, I’m not entirely convinced by this argument.

Faith schools are grossly unfair for lots of other reasons too.  If you’re in the UK, you can watch Richard Dawkins’ show Faith School Menace? Here: http://www.channel4.com/programmes/faith-school-menace/4od

It’s quite hard to find information about faith schools.  I haven’t even managed to find out yet how many there actually are in North Yorkshire, although there are 7000 in England, mostly Church of England and Catholic.  But this is what I’ve been able to verify so far.  Correct me if I’m wrong about anything:

Anyone can start a faith school.  All you need is a fairly small amount of money (around £1m, I think) and the government will give you a whole lot more money to get started and pay your bills in perpetuity.  You only get to do this if your school is to have a religious focus and has formal links with a mainstream religion.  In some cases, I’m given to understand, the Labour government even waived the need to raise any private money at all.  Usually, a religious organisation must supply the land for buildings, but the school will usually receive 90% of capital costs.

Once you’ve started a faith school, it can then opt out of the religious education curriculum, whereas other schools cannot.  This means that while other schools have to teach about all religions and secular issues relating to religion, faith schools can teach only theirs.  Or presumably they could teach lies about other religions or about atheists. 

You can teach creationism in faith schools.  While they are compelled to teach the curriculum, there’s nothing to prevent them teaching additional material.  Of course, this is true in all schools, but only faith schools can get away with teaching outright lies such as creationism.  There’d rightly be an outcry if non-faith schools did this, but it has happened in UK faith schools without very much fuss at all. 

You get to be more selective about which students you accept than a non-religious school.  You can discriminate against children on the grounds of their parents’ religion but must otherwise comply with the statutory Admissions Code.  In practice, this mostly means that you can prioritise students whose parents share your religion, but if you have spaces left over, you have to fill them with people whose parents have a different or no religion.  However, the figures suggest that some form of covert selection is going on anyway.  For example, faith schools have fewer students from poorer families and fewer with special educational needs.  This will make your results look better.

You can discriminate against non-religious staff.  You can fill all teaching posts with members of the faith you promote and can instigate faith tests.  No other employers (other than churches themselves) are allowed to do this.  If I refused to employ someone because they were religious, I’d rightly be judged to be breaking the law.  But it’s OK to do it if you’re a faith school.  It’s a worrying practice for other reasons, too.  What’s to stop a faith school using the religious test as an excuse to dismiss staff, claiming an ideological dispute?  It could be used as a way to bypass normal disciplinary or redundancy procedure or to avoid claims of unfair dismissal.

You can decide what your school’s ethos will be.  I’ve no idea what this means, but I’m guessing it will include things like dress code, punishment, behaviour etc.  Assuming that faith schools must otherwise comply with the law, this is still somewhat worrying.  Can faith schools force girls and female staff to wear a burka?  Could they expel a student for eating pork?  Or for being homosexual?  Or for being an atheist or professing another religion?  Might they be allowed to punish girls for socialising with boys?  Or for being ‘disrespectful’ to males?  Or for being sexually assaulted by a male?  Might they be able to punish students for things they do outside school?

I don’t know whether any of these things are true, but why would this weasel word ‘ethos’ be required unless the schools wished to do things they wouldn’t normally be allowed to or be exempt from something otherwise mandatory?

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