Church educationalist rejects Dawkins' ‘scaremongering’ over faith schools

The Chief Education Officer for the Church of England has dismissed a TV documentary by prominent atheist Richard Dawkins in which he challenges the place of faith schools within the education system.

In Faith Schools Menace?, which aired on More4 on Wednesday, Dawkins asserted that faith schools were discriminatory because they admitted pupils on the basis of faith, and that they lead to segregated communities that “throw stones at each other”.

He said: “Isn’t it time for our society to rethink what is best for children? I want to explore the balance of rights between a parent’s rights to educate a child in their own faith and the children’s rights to determine their own beliefs and approach the world with a genuinely open mind.”

Dawkins, an Oxford University Professor and author of The God Delusion, said that the faith element should be “abolished” from schools altogether. He also expressed his opposition to faith schools being funded by the Government.

“Today we taxpayers fund the running of these schools and also pay up to 90% of the cost of building them. But the problem is that the churches have held on to the special powers in their schools,” he said.

There are just under 7,000 schools in England with a religious affiliation, most of them Church of England or Roman Catholic.

Writing on the Church Mouse blog in an article published today, the Rev Janina Ainsworth said Dawkins’ documentary was more about “scaremongering” than showing “what actually happens” in faith schools.

She said it was an “entirely reasonable approach” to prioritise children from families which support the school’s faith designation where it was impossible to offer a place to every child that applied.

She maintained that voluntary-aided schools, which are allowed an element of faith-based criteria in their admissions, “rarely” fill all of their places with applications from Christian families and that voluntary-controlled church schools, which make up more than half of all Church of England schools, admit children solely on the grounds of distance to school.

She argued that there was no evidence in England that faith schools segregated communities and dismissed Dawkins’ assertion that faith schools were guilty of indoctrinating students because their RE lessons are not inspected by Ofsted.

“The rising popularity of A level RE shows that pupils’ interest in religions and faith is not being stifled by being told there is only one answer,” she wrote.

“Today’s exam syllabuses demand a high level of critical thinking, and the success of pupils in church schools at A level and GCSE shows that’s a lesson they have learned well.”

She went on to defend the right of parents to have their children educated in line with their religious beliefs and rejected Dawkins’ assertion that faith schools should not be paid for by taxpayers’ money.

She said: “In a liberal democracy, taxpayers of all faiths and none should be able to see their taxes being used to provide high quality education in a context that reflects their own religious, moral or philosophical commitments.”