The problem with faith schools

It baffles me why the good citizens of the UK permit children to be educated in government supported “faith schools.” Why do they even exist? What good do they do, except to inculcate fairly tales in children and prevent them from intermingling with those of other backgrounds—something that is desirable in a democracy.  Even the U.S. doesn’t have them, though in some cases state governments support religious education through a voucher system.

The dangers of these schools don’t just reside in the Islamic ones, which was what you probably thought I was getting at. That is a problem, but there are problems in schools of other faiths—probably of every faith. The latest comes from a Jewish girls’ school in Hackney (an area of London), Yesodey Hatorah Secondary School, in which every student is a girl from an Orthodox Jewish home.

And, as many of you know, Orthodox Judaism is not friendly to evolution. Most are creationists, and I’ve met several Orthodox Jews who, after accepting evolution, were expelled from their family and shunned by their friends. They became atheists, and are deeply wounded.

According to the National Secular Society, Yesodey Hatorah has been redacting evolution questions on the GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) exams, tests given to every student in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and whose scores determine one’s eligibility for higher education. After being caught simply eliminating the questions from the GCSE exam, Yesodey Hatorah’s principal, Rabbi Avraham Pinter, expressed no contrition, but said this:

“if we can’t redact [questions], then we won’t redact them.” However, the Rabbi went on to state that “our children will be aware of which questions they should be answering and which ones they shouldn’t be.” Pinter also said that evolution was not compatible with the school’s strict, Orthodox ethos. It is now clear that rather than redacting questions as they had in the past, the school is advising students not to address the questions.

This, of course, lowers the students’ scores, as they get no credit for evolution questions. But it’s apparently more important to keep the faith than learn the truth.

And it’s not just evolution where students are shortchanged. The school also refuses to teach required courses in human reproduction, for that, too, violates Orthodox strictures. Questions on human reproduction, like those on evolution, were being “redacted” from the exams by the teachers. This violates national standards for education, and keeps the kids in the faith-based cocoon where their parents want them.

One would think, since the school has admitted violating government standards, and seems committed to continuing these violations, they’d be called out or punished by the government.

One would be wrong.

OFSTED, the UK governmental organization for Standards in Education, Children’s Services, and Skills, rated Yesodey Hatorah school for 2014. The rating? “GOOD”! Here it is:

Screen Shot 2014-11-16 at 1.48.32 PM


How can this be? As the British Humanist Association (BHA) notes,

Against this backdrop, it was surprising that the school’s inspection in September, which was published in October, not only found the school to be ‘good’, but does not mention evolution, creationism or sex and relationships education at all.

The BHA has made inquiries, so far with no response:

BHA Faith Schools Campaigner Richy Thompson commented, ‘Every young person is entitled to a broad and balanced education, including understanding evolution’s central role in biology and that it is the only evidence-based view of how life came to be. The Government has made it clear that if a school teaches creationism as scientifically valid, then that, in its view, would be unbalanced. Equally, all the best evidence shows that full and comprehensive sex and relationships education leads to the best outcomes for young people in terms of sexual health and wellbeing.

‘How can it be right that a school, never mind about a state school, can deny pupils a broad and balanced education in these important areas, and yet still be deemed by Ofsted to be ‘good’? We have asked Ofsted how this happened and why these issues are not mentioned in its report, and are currently awaiting a reply.’

I’ll be curious to see how Ofsted justifies its “good” rating. In the meantime, you heathens and science-friendly UKers should be raising holy hell about this, and, above all, trying to end the practice of having government faith schools. Now I’m sure that since the schools are firmly embedded in the UK system, this won’t be easy, but there is simply no justification for an enlightened democracy to support religious education. When it does, you get stuff like this happening.


  1. ranc8s
    Posted November 16, 2014 at 1:31 pm | Permalink


    • Filippo
      Posted November 18, 2014 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

      sub. (Hope to get to it soon.)

  2. heatherhastie
    Posted November 16, 2014 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    This isn’t the only faith-based school in the UK redacting evolution questions from exams – several Christian and Muslim schools are doing it too. I’m pretty sure there’s a campaign by secular organisations about this, so I’m looking forward to reading about it in the comments.

  3. Graham Martin-Royle
    Posted November 16, 2014 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    Faith schools are an embarrassment and I wish we could get rid of them. You only have to look at Northern Ireland to see the damage that faith schools can contribute to.

    Unfortunately we have a set of politicians that run scared of taking on the faith lobby. Even our Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of The Opposition, both openly atheist, are reluctant to do anything.

    But we keep on trying.

    • Posted November 16, 2014 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

      Well you outnumber the USA in terms of atheists in leadership positions by two. That’s something.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted November 16, 2014 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

      Not just ulster. There are plenty of bigots being churned out by faith schools in Scotland, particularly West Scotland. It’s probably not as bad as it used to be, but there are still too many of them.

      • HaggisForBrains
        Posted November 17, 2014 at 5:12 am | Permalink


        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted November 17, 2014 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

          To be honest, plenty coming out of non-faith schools and football grounds too.
          I was coming back from an immigration interview in the badlands of Glasgow, and noticed the delightfully named “Plantations Laundrette”. I then had to explain to SWMBO the whole sordid sorry tale, including my habit of being greeted on my birthday morning with news of bigotry-fuelled stabbings.

          • HaggisForBrains
            Posted November 18, 2014 at 3:22 am | Permalink

            One of the reasons I am so against any school that helps to reinforce any sectarian divide is that I have personal experience of the opposite. I was brought up in a well-to-do southern suburb of Glasgow, well-known at the time for having a large Jewish population. My primary seven class in that school was exactly one third Jewish. As a result I had many Jewish childhood friends, and was totally unaware of anti-Semitism until I left that school. I have always felt that the whole Protestant/Catholic divide in Glasgow is reinforced by separate primary schooling. There are, of course, other factors, but making friends across the divide during childhood innocence can only help improve matters.

            Aidan, you’re not born in mid-July, by any chance?

            • gravelinspector-Aidan
              Posted November 18, 2014 at 5:02 am | Permalink

              It’s depressingly predictable, isn’t it (my birthdate, that is)?
              I didn’t have the arguable pleasures of growing up with the Scottish school system, so most of what I know of it is from external observation. Here in the North East, there are few schools which display their religious affiliations on their name boards, and that’s all I’ve got to go on. Then again, when the Orange Scum (no, not Robert Kilroy-Silk lookalikes) tried setting up Aidan’s Birthday Hate Marches here, the streets were lined several people deep with people turning their backs on the hateful scum (I was offshore at the time, so my reports are anecdotal). They haven’t tried it again. I suspect these events are not unrelated.

  4. Posted November 16, 2014 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    Two points:

    Firstly, the growth of faith schools is due to the current, and previous, government’s policy of avoiding paying for something which can be paid for by someone else – in this case, the churches of the various religions from which the UK suffers. Not to worry that standards suffer – at least we can all pay a little less tax and it’ll be someone else’s problem to sort out when we have a population made up of thick bastards. Our current, unelected Prime Minister calls it ‘big society,’ and he too is a deluded, unthinking little arse.

    Secondly, OFSTED is a highly ineffective government body who base their assessment of schools not on results, but on a checklist of what they observe teachers doing during classes. OFSTED’s main impact is to throw the fear of God into good teachers because they might fail to conform to OFSTED’s myopic notion of what makes a good teacher.

    • bonetired
      Posted November 16, 2014 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

      The Churches don’t pay a thing towards those schools which are funded by the state. They should but they don’t.

    • Posted November 16, 2014 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

      OFSTED arrive at a school with a hypothesis and try to confirm it (not a good sign). Usually this means that good results give you a good and bad results gives you the terror of special measures.

      I was in a school which got taken over by another school following a not very good inspection. A year later, with the might of the new management behind it, the school scored the same rating. Not sure whether to be cynical or not.

    • Graham Martin-Royle
      Posted November 17, 2014 at 2:15 am | Permalink

      Cameron was elected, by his constituents as their MP. None of us has a direct vote on who the Prime Minister will be, that’s decided by the MP’s themselves.

      That’s one reason why I don’t like the television debates, I don’t live in any of their constituencies so I don’t get a chance to vote for/against any of them.

      It’s also a reason why I support democratic change in this country, so that maybe we’ll actually have democracy that represents the will of the people, unlike the present ridiculous system hereby someone can become n MP with less than 30% of the electorate voting for them.

      • Posted November 20, 2014 at 6:52 am | Permalink

        You’re right, but for brevity I chose not to say, “the minister elected as leader within his political party which then didn’t gain enough votes to win a general election.”

        It amounts to the same thing. We have a Prime Minister who shouldn’t be.

  5. Diana MacPherson
    Posted November 16, 2014 at 1:51 pm | Permalink


  6. bonetired
    Posted November 16, 2014 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    JAC: post deleted by reader’s request, new post below.

    • Sastra
      Posted November 16, 2014 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

      Worth repeating, bone tired.

      • bonetired
        Posted November 16, 2014 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

        Yeah … I prepared it in Word (something that I sometimes do) and accidentally cut and pasted it twice without noticing … The rest, as they say, is history

  7. bonetired
    Posted November 16, 2014 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    Jerry … Something went wrong with that post. Can you delete?

    The reason is simple. A lot of religious schools are perceived by many parents to provide a better education than non-religious schools. Around the corner from where I am sitting in a Roman Catholic secondary school (ages 11-16) which seems to turn out decent kids with good qualifications that allow a progression to higher education, including a degree. Middle-class, middle income parents will do their very best to get their kids into such schools ( including, on occasion, moving house to be within the catchment area). What is interesting is that the CofE and RC schools tend not to shove religion down the kid’s throats ( certainly the ones who have been to the RC school are a pretty agnostic bunch). I agree there is a major issue with /some/ state schools – there is a long running saga in Birmingham where it was alleged that there has been a “trojan horse” plot where Islamic fundamentalists had infiltrated the school – but the bog standard church based schools are pretty lax about religion.

    • Posted November 16, 2014 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I posted your new post but left the old one blank because Sastra replied to it.

    • Posted November 16, 2014 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

      I’ve heard this argument from people who send their kids to Catholic schools in Canada as well. When I ask what makes the school better, they have no answer. U suspect they are just buying into and repeating other people’s assertions.

      • Alan
        Posted November 16, 2014 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

        They (CofE & RC) tend to have a better ethos and better behaved students, unlike the standard state schools which seem to suffer from a race to the lowest level. I may be caused by the lower levels of concerned parents as they have made the effort to get their kids into the better performing schools.
        Admission: I am one of those parents using both RC & CofE schools to enable a better level of education for my son.

        • Alan
          Posted November 16, 2014 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

          “It may be” not “I may be”

        • Posted November 16, 2014 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

          Here in Ontario there is NO evidence of better academics or behavior in the RC schools.

        • Michael Hart
          Posted November 16, 2014 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

          Many of the publicly funded Catholic schools in Alberta and Ontario have the same reputation for better ethos and better behaviour.

          • Michael Hart
            Posted November 16, 2014 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

            Oops, I agree with Merilee – reputation, but not evidence.

        • Kevinj
          Posted November 16, 2014 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

          It does help the religious schools that they are allowed selective practices, unlike the neighbouring schools (although this is getting more complicated with the academies etc).
          Any parent who is willing to attend church for a year or so prior to secondary school is likely to be a more involved parent generally.

        • Diane G.
          Posted November 16, 2014 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

          “… It may be caused by the lower levels of concerned parents as they have made the effort to get their kids into the better performing schools.”

          Oh, I think it’s precisely that.

          My kids attended private non-sectarian, private parochial, and public schools here in the US, and in all there were good teachers and bad teachers. The private schools did score higher on achievement tests than the public on average. But when you look at how children perform by parental income levels, the affluent kids score significantly higher than the private school kids, probably because public schools are much bigger and can offer many more advanced classes–and they also pay faculty much better.

          But of course, since public schools have to take all comers, they end up with most of the worst-performers as well, including those poor kids who enter kindergarten way behind their peers and never catch up.

          (This is not to say that income is everything; there are parents at every level who are paying attention, and their kids nearly all do well. But it’s easier to compare data by income level than by trying to figure out how to measure “parents who care.”)

      • Timothy Hughbanks
        Posted November 16, 2014 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

        My grandchildren are caught in a bind in San Antonio, Texas. Their papents moved them into a small creationist oriented Christian school because the eldest of the three was being seriously bullied in the public school – and the school officials were doing little about it. The youngest, my granddaughter, has moved back to the public school because she was chafing at the loony Christians.

        • Timothy Hughbanks
          Posted November 16, 2014 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

          parents, that is

      • John Perkins
        Posted November 16, 2014 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

        British Columbia, I believe, is the only Province in Canada. In Alberta where I lived until moving to BC some years ago, I knew several non-Catholic families who enrolled their children in Catholic schools in the belief that they would receive a “better”

    • Ian Hewitson
      Posted November 16, 2014 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

      Mea culpa.
      The education received at church schools is generally regarded as being of a higher standard. I have confession to make. My kids all went to the very school named by Richard Dawkins in the the first chapter of The God Delusion.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted November 16, 2014 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

        Dawkins was an Oundle boy, wasn’t he?
        I’ve known several teachers and staff from there over the years – perfectly fine people, and the school does have a good technical reputation, but not for excessive godliness.

    • eric
      Posted November 17, 2014 at 7:45 am | Permalink

      That, on its own, is not a good reason. The nearest RCC to me has a very good elementary school associated with it. Its won all sorts of awards, they teach sound science (I’ve looked into it), etc.. We are currently considering it for our kid. But having said all that, I would object to and never countenance having the government pay for it. Yes I want good schooling for my kid. No I do not think the government or my tax dollars should pay for it, if I choose a religious school.

      Personally I think the why can be summed up in two words: historical momentum. Sometimes its just difficult to change institutions, and the cost associated with doing so sometimes prevents optimal solutions.

  8. Posted November 16, 2014 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    I have the same concerns about Australian faith-based schools, but nearly everybody I talk to seems unconcerned because so far nothing too bad seems to be going on. However, the potential for sectarianism and indoctrination seems to obvious to ignore…

    • heatherhastie
      Posted November 16, 2014 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

      In many state schools (NZ) we have weekly Christian Religious Instruction for half hour, taught by volunteers. I had it when I was a kid. I think it should be gone. Most religions have pulled out and it is mostly the more fundamental churches that are still providing volunteers. The NZARH is campaigning to stop it, but not making much progress.

      Two of my nieces are at a C of E school which provides outstanding education along with a fair bit of dogma. My sister doesn’t want me to mention anything about not believing around them so as not to confuse them. You can imagine what I think of that.

      NZ and UK are two of only three countries worldwide that don’t have a formal written constitution – we rely on law, which includes a Bill of Rights, and legal precedent.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted November 16, 2014 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

        Two of my nieces are at a C of E school which provides outstanding education along with a fair bit of dogma. My sister doesn’t want me to mention anything about not believing around them so as not to confuse them.

        I can’t imagine how that’s meant to work. Does your sister protect them from knowledge of the existence of any other religions than the one they’re being indoctrinated in? How does she handle, for example, the genocidal violence between Palestinians and Israelis without mentioning that they’re all different septs of Jews – and that the C.of.E is another sept of Judaism. Or does she just prevent them from listening to news/ reading newspapers/ talking to people from other homes?
        I suspect that your sister hasn’t thought things through. Or she’s afraid that having someone of different opinion who she cant dismiss as being a bad person will “complicate” the lies about reality that she is propagating to her children.
        Lieing to children about reality doesn’t have a good record of outcomes.

    • Henry Fitzgerald
      Posted November 16, 2014 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

      The situation in Australia is one where I keep expecting people to simply wake up one morning and realise what a dumb idea it is to place education in the hands of churches. But you’re right, no one seems especially concerned.

      But the potential for sectarianism you mention isn’t mere potential – it actually happened. Australia once (from the 19th Century until as recently as the 60s) had a strong, acrimonious Catholic/Anglican rift. Catholics, the relatively weaker side, were effectively discriminated against, although I’m sure had the tables been turned it would have been Anglicans. What ended all this was heavy government investment in state schools, during a period when the population was rising and educational franchise was increasing – which effectively meant that the churches lost their monopoly.

  9. Posted November 16, 2014 at 2:30 pm | Permalink


  10. John Perkins
    Posted November 16, 2014 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    Duh ! BC is not the only Province in Canada – it is, I believe, the only province without a Catholic school system.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted November 16, 2014 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

      In Canada, you can set up an RC school as a private school but we call the ones paid by the state, “separate schools”. Separate schools have constitutional status in Ontario, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Northwest Territories, Yukon & Nunavut.

      It’s stupid and should not be allowed. In Ontario, the Catholic schools were not funded but that changed in the 80s and now we all pay for Catholic schools.

  11. aljoc
    Posted November 16, 2014 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    When I went to school in England in the sixties there was only one compulsory subject, and it was not one of the three R’s, it was the fourth R. Of course the only one we actually learned about was Christianity, and it was indoctrination rather than education. So I suppose we have moved slightly in the right direction.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted November 17, 2014 at 12:31 am | Permalink

      I dunno. I went to a grammar school in the 60’s, we had RE (Religious Education) one period a week, as I vaguely recall it was straight bible stuff, taught by a rather bored teacher who was probably an atheist anyway… I can’t recall if we were examined on it, probably not, so the main effect was to waste an hour of our time. I don’t think any of us thought we were actually supposed to believe any of it.

    • Graham Martin-Royle
      Posted November 17, 2014 at 2:22 am | Permalink

      I was at a grammar school in London in the 60’s and took RK as an “O” level subject. My reasoning was that I was interested in learning about other religions. Guess what, we studied the babble and that was it!

  12. Timothy Hughbanks
    Posted November 16, 2014 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    Based on some of the comments from people so far, it sounds as if the answer to Jerry’s question may be that religious schools are exploiting a variant of the Tragedy of the Commons – which arises from people individually acting in their own self interest, but against the group’s common interest by, in most cases, depleting a common resource. The church schools can apply selective admission standards and – in UK faith schools and American charter schools – get public resources to teach the students they want the way they want. So long as the kids seem to be able to avoid the problems one gets with poorer students or students with apathetic or abusive parents, the faith schools can squeeze in a certain amount of religious woo without making the parents bolt.

    • bonetired
      Posted November 16, 2014 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

      Yes and no. The C of E schools in particular tend not to enforce selective practices and are just the local school. This is acknowledged by the C of E themselves:

      “The vast majority of church schools admit pupils from the local neighbourhood
      regardless of faith background.”

      Even the Catholics will admit non-Catholics (even though preference is, indeed, given to RCs). The school I have mentioned elsewhere is about 50:50 Catholic:non-Catholic.

      The real issue is not with the Church schools but with a small number of schools run by intolerant, extremist religious sects that run the schools exclusively for children of that sect. The Yesodey Hatorah school is purely for ultra-orthodox Charedi Jews who reject a fair number of the trappings of modern life and who are decidedly backwards in the scientific understanding. The same goes for the Trojan Horse schools in Birmingham ( )

      I would prefer that there are no faith schools but, I have to admit, that the church schools, in particular, do a pretty good job of educating the kids without ramming religion down their throats.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted November 17, 2014 at 5:20 am | Permalink

      What do group-selectionists like the Wilsons say about the tragedy of the commons?
      Never mind, I just remembered there are pictures of cats to look at.

  13. Posted November 16, 2014 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    The BHA is very active here, having a dedicated campaigner on ‘faith’ schools and education.


    • marvol19
      Posted November 17, 2014 at 1:19 am | Permalink

      Yes, i was going to say this as well.

      Anyone in the UK who feels strongly about this (and related issues) could do a lot worse than support the British Humanists for a couple of tenners a year.

      The NSS (National Secular Society) does related work, also worth checking out.

      Needless to say i proudly support both ٩(๑❛▽❛๑)۶

  14. Randy Schenck
    Posted November 16, 2014 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    Of course in the U.S. of A. the very large numbers of private schools/church schools and charter is also important to continue the segregation they all claim to have abandoned. If we take a look at Alabama I’m not sure there is much public school left. Except at the University level because they do need to maintain a good football team.

  15. Posted November 16, 2014 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    This conversation really makes me appreciate my kids’ upper-middle-class California public elementary school. Schools in California are generally not as well-funded as they were when I was growing up, but they are still strong (in my district) with extra science, art and technology enhanced with contributions from the parent-teacher association. When you live in an area where secular education is valued, and the integration of non-white, non-rich kids is considered a strength, it’s hard to imagine there remain areas in the US, Canada and the UK where people intentionally choose to retard their children’s growth. I’m familiar with the anti-intellectual movements in American rural areas and the south, of course, but in Canada and the UK? I don’t think I’ve heard about this anywhere but at WEIT. Remarkable.

  16. Dionigi
    Posted November 16, 2014 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

    go here to maybe help

  17. Bruce Gorton
    Posted November 16, 2014 at 11:58 pm | Permalink

    All I can say is

    Yesodey, all these troubles seem to far away
    But they say religion’s here to stay
    Ohhh some believe in Yesodey

  18. marvol19
    Posted November 17, 2014 at 1:31 am | Permalink

    The main reasons this is “tolerated” i think are threefold.

    One is that the two major parties (Conservatives and Labour) both strongly support faith schools. This can be expected from the Tories as they are the equivalent to the Republicans. Labour is more of an enigma, being nominally socialist; their problem is that their previous government under Blair strongly pushed faith schools so if they oppose them now they’ll look like turncoats.

    Second is the reason mentioned above where people see the benefit to themselves and take advantage (plus a bit of “oh surely they do no harm” thrown in).

    And finally the issue for many voters simply isn’t as important as the economy, immigration, Europe, etc, so the main parties have a lot of freedom on this issue. For this same reason e.g. libel reform and democratic reform (House of Lords) is deliberately stalled by the Tories.

  19. helendbang
    Posted November 17, 2014 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    When choosing a primary school for our sons we opted for the RC one because the secular one had such terrible results and very poor parental engagement. My sons were only at the RC school for 3 or 1 years before we moved to Scotland and got them into a good secular school. I remember my son telling me that “God decided to get rid of all the bad people” – they’d been doing Noah’s Ark. I objected to a 6 year old having lessons about genocide. My other son came home with “There was this very good man called Guy Fawkes who wanted to get rid of this bad king called King James….” a slightly different version than the one I’d learned at my private school… I should point out that I was raised in a church-going family and only became an atheist later in adulthood. My husband has always been an atheist. We want them to have an understanding of religions but to question everything. The observation about middle class parents moving house and fighting to get kids into a good, possibly church school even faking belief to do so is correct – something has gone very wrong with schools in England. It seems better in Scotland. The main problem is with the more extreme fundamentalist schools but national life in the UK still has an outwardly ‘religious’ aspect to it and as you’ll see every time there’s a tragedy and people line up with flowers the messages usually have references to the deceased ‘being with the angels’ etc.

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