Tag Archives: BHA

What is a faith school really like? Part 1: Background and setting

Followers of the National Secular Society and the British Humanist Association will be familiar with their opposition to the idea of faith schools. This gets my goat a little, not only because they seem to be wasting a lot of their hot air talking about matters which are not especially important, but also because the image they would like to paint of faith schools is misleading and inaccurate. Why do I claim this is so? Well, it’s because I spent 9.5 years in a faith school. As such, I feel I am in a reasonable position to say what does and does not go on there. Further than that, both my sisters went and my mother was a classroom assistant at the same school.

So this post is part-autobiography, part-mythbuster as to what goes on in the particular faith school that I attended.

The background to the school

In the early 1980s, my local church set up a school. Various parents at the church had some concerns with the quality of the education in the local mainstream schools. Some had started to homeschool, but there were enough qualified people in the church from which to resource the founding of a new school with a christian ethos.

Pupils would typically enter the school at the age of 7 (though admission did happen at later ages) and leave after the completion of their GCSEs (O-levels) when they were 16. I entered in January 1991. The school was split into two main classrooms, the Intermediate Learning Centre (ILC) and the Main Learning Centre (MLC). The ILC was for students aged 7-10/11 before you would go to the MLC. You would then stay in the MLC until you left, aged 16. The whole school was housed within the church building. The ILC occupied one room near the front of the church and the MLC occupied the basement. This necessitated a lot of shifting of furniture on a Monday and a Friday or, as happened sometimes, the church building was needed for a mid-week funeral.

Each student would have their own “office”. These were desks that were separated by yellow boards of wood, where you would keep your books and stationery. They were fairly small, so if you needed more space, you had to ask a member of the teaching staff if you could use a tressle table. To ask for assistance, you had to put one of 2 flags on top of your office. There was a union jack which was for a monitor (teaching assistant) and a random-looking “christian flag” for a supervisor (class teacher).

Admissions

One of the key objections to faith schools is that they are selective, and therefore potentially discriminatory. In my school, the criteria was the beliefs of the parents. Their parents did not need to have to be members of the church nor did they even have to be regular attendees. All they had to do was to show a commitment to a church and to agree to the doctrinal basis of the school, which was tied to that of the church. This was not binding on both parents; I can recall at least one family where one parent refused to have anything to do with any church, though the parent was a member. That said, the vast majority of the children at the school were from two-parent families where both parents were christians.

What was not selective was academic ability. This resulted in a wide of people actually being admitted. The year above me had 3 people in it. One was a chap who was great with computers long before it became “cool” to do so – he went on to do Computer Science at Oxford University. Another chap had a mental disability; had he not been in this school he would have had to go to a special school. If I recall correctly, his great achievement was leaving school with 2 GCSEs. Everyone was chuffed for him, as he had (and still has) a heart of gold. The third chap had missed out on several years’ worth of school, as his parents had moved around a lot and he had had to restart every time they moved.

As a student there, I was not party to the full details of the school’s finances. It was fee-paying, though I am unaware whether or not it received any government subsidy. I don’t think it did, but I can’t be 100% that that’s correct.

With all that said, I have no evidence of anyone ever having been turned away from the school. As it had to be fee-paying, some families in the church couldn’t afford them and so opted to home-school.

Uniform

When the school was founded, they wanted to have a school uniform that would mark the students out as being distinctive; something that couldn’t possibly be mistaken for belonging to another school. In so doing, there was a bit of a quandary. Most of the colours and styles were already taken. So the school opted for what was left: brown.

The boys wore brown jumpers, brown caps and predominantly brown ties (though the tie did have yellow and green narrow stripes in it), yellow shirts and grey trousers. One thing we were able to look forward to was turning 13, because then we were allowed to ditch the caps. The girls had 2 different uniforms: one for winter, one for summer. The winter uniform was similar to the boys’ except that they wore brown skirts and had brown bowler hats instead of caps. In the summer, they wore brown and white gingham-check dresses and had straw boater hats. For sports, we had dark green tracksuits. The rest depended on what sport we were doing.

As a result, we were very noticeable, though not always in a good way. Most students walked to school, and there was a high level of verbal bullying from students from other schools. I lived at the other end of town from most people, so was a rarer sight. As my mum worked at the school, she preferred to drive the 1 mile there and back, so I didn’t walk terribly often. But when I did it wasn’t unknown for me to have things thrown at me (often apple cores and banana skins) en route.

Coming up

In part 2, I’ll look specifically at the curriculum and teaching. To satisfy some people’s thirst, I have included a small section on creationism in this, as that seems to be a topic of interest and ire in equal measure amongst those who take an interest in faith schools.

In part 3, I’ll finish off the curriculum by looking at sports, before discussing the academic standards and the legacy of the school.

Bishops and Lords reform

On an almost seasonal basis, there are calls for the end of bishops in the House of Lords (HoL). At present, there are 26 Church of England (CoE) bishops who have places reserved for them in the upper house of Parliament. In total, there are786 members of the HoL (as of the 1st of April this year, according to Wikipedia), so the bishops only make up 3.3%. Opponents of the bishops posit that there should be no place for religious privilege and that therefore they should be kicked out. Such is the position of the British Humanist Association (BHA).

While I largely agree with the BHA on this issue, I think it misses the point. As I understand it, the historical reason for the bishops was that they could represent the people of their respective dioceses. So while members of the House of Commons would be elected on a regional basis, the bishops would have that same regional sense via their presence in the HoL, albeit their geographical areas spanned much larger regions than constituencies. This may once have been a reasonable basis, but it is now just one of the many aspects of the upper house which is outdated.

Since I started to become more politically aware of things in the early/mid 90s, I have heard talk of “Lord’s reform” crop up on a regular basis. While Tony Blair’s government instigated some changes, I don’t think they went anywhere near enough. The very existence of an appointed HoL flies is evidence which contradicts the claim that Parliament is a democracy. For that reason, I would welcome the proposal in the queen’s speech to reform its make-up.

My proposal to change the HoL would involve removing the places that are specially reserved for the bishops, but not to necessarily remove the bishops themselves. That is, they should not be given any place of special privilege but neither should they be discriminated against on the basis of the “religion”. But this would only be one tiny part of the reform and which I think the BHA focuses on far more keenly than an organisation which claims to value ‘reason’ ought to. As I have pointed out above, the bishops are very few in number, do not exercise their votes uniformly and the amount of influence they have is massively exaggerated by most of those who simply want to rid Parliament of them, without having a positive agenda for Parliamentary reform.

My view is that the whole HoL needs to be overhauled in the way that its members are determined. There are a few different ways this way be done and to be honest, I’ve not made up my mind on which would be better. I don’t have a complete hypothesis of how each would work, but I am confident that it would be an improvement on the modern system.

1) Wholly elected 2nd chamber. The number of members of the Lords should be fixed and then elections should take place as per elections for the House of Commons. To try to ensure independence (though by no means an absolute guarantee, that would be impossible) candidates who are or have been members of a political party would be barred from standing.

2) Mirror the jury system. Anyone who is on the electoral register may be called up for service. Each member would have to serve for a set period of time (maybe a year?). Again, anyone who had been a member of a political party would be exempted from selection.

3) Proportional representation. You may recall that I advocated the AV system in last year’s referendum on electoral reform, outlining why the first past the post system is not the best way of determining democratic will in an election with more than 2 candidates. So if we could not ban members of the Lords from having membership of or association with political parties, we could at least ensure that the proportional make-up of the Lords reflected the proportional casting of votes.

To take a hypothetical (and admittedly, slightly unrealistic) example let’s say that at the next election, where Labour were to win seats, they would them by a small majority, but the Conservatives win their seats by a large majority. On a constituency by constituency basis, Labour may win 55% of the seats in the Commons, but it’s conceivable that they might have only achieved 45% of the total votes cast. In such an instance, Labour would only be allowed 45% of the seats in the Lords.

I’m sure you can think of plenty of other possibilities, or even have a combination of measures. Yet either alone or together, these proposals would make the upper house more democratic than it is now. Some commentators in the wake of the queen’s speech were arguing that making the upper house democratic would put it on a par with the lower house and so undermine the authority of that latter house.

I don’t think this is a wholly bad thing. The idea of the upper house should be, in my opinion, the place where the lower house is challenged and held to account on individual bills. The act which enables the Commons to push through legislation regardless of the Lords abhors my sense of democratic fairness. Of course, the lower house is accountable in general elections, but these only occur once every 4 or 5 years, thus negating the idea that we actually live in a democracy. In truth, democracy is only a sporadic visitor to these shores, while hegemony is ordinarily resident.

What would then become of the bishops? Well, I don’t think an awful lot would change. Because when I had a flick through Hansard, what we find is that they don’t really participate much (though they are by no means unique in this). While they kicked up a fuss, and rightly so, about the government’s victimisation of the disabled in the form of the Welfare Reform Bill, even had those bishops who voted against the bill voted the other way, the result would have been the same. There were also many more secular peers who voted against the bill.

For those that may have spent some time in the Lords, taking them back to their local areas would allow them more time to do the job with they are tasked: making disciples, baptising them and teaching them about the life and work of Jesus.

The argument of needing them as a moral voice is a void one, as bishops are only representative of one denomination of one religion (however we might define that), and as I have argued before, religions do not have a monopoly on morality.

So by backing a reform of the House of Lords, my hope would be that we can make Parliament more closely resemble a democracy and free up the bishops to preach the gospel.

Of course, whether any change will actually occur is a wholly different matter…