AC Grayling & Free Schools

AC Grayling, in yesterday’s Independent, wrote a comment piece titled ‘Creationist Free Schools are an abuse – ancient ignorance has no place in education‘. Now, this blogger by no means agrees with the title of the piece (well, not the first half of it, at any rate). Nonetheless, I must admit to being no great supporter of faith schools. On this, at least, I am in agreement with Grayling. However, my reasons are entirely different to those put forward in his article.

Although I am not a fan of ‘religious’ schools per se, I would not proscribe them – just as I wouldn’t ban the public/private schools that so blight our education system. I would, however, deny such schools the the benefit of the public purse. If Christians, Muslims, Jews – dare I even say, Atheists – want to run schools built around their own particular ethos/worldview/prejudice (delete as you deem appropriate) who are we to stop them? However, whilst such schools should be allowed to function, it seems absurd that Atheists should be forced to fund Christian schools, Jews to fund Muslim establishments and vice versa. I can entirely see how it would stick in the craw for AC Grayling to fund schools built around ethoses with which he so vehemently disagrees, just as it would no doubt be a cause for consternation amongst religious believer to fund his new educational venture.

My main concerns regarding faith schools have almost nothing to do with what, or even how, they teach. For the most part their teaching is very good. OfSTED judge faith-based education by the same standards as state schools and find no cause for concern.  Indeed, if we abide by the statistics alone and question them not at all, state schools appear to offer a generally better level education than their secular state counterparts.

This brings me to the nub of why I do not support faith schools. For, whilst the statistics appear to bear out that faith schools offer a better education, selection policies go a long way to creating this impression. Many faith schools have selection policies taking a percentage of entrants on faith requirements and a remaining number based on examination. Such policies can guarantee at least 50% of the school intake are ‘above average’ students. Whilst, no doubt, children of genuine ‘faith-subscribers’ make up some of the remaining 50%, it is well known that a mere nod and wink from a local minister/vicar/priest is enough to see one selected on the faith criteria. Parents with the motivation to prove they subscribe to the faith necessary for selection tend to take more of an active interest in their own child’s education. Typically, though not exclusively, such children come from middle class backgrounds and have both the privilege and parental motivation to encourage achievement.

Equally problematic is the segregation of children from such an early age. This is not an issue of tensions between local Catholic/Protestant or Jewish/Islamic schools. Such issues of group belonging and the ‘rival other’ exist just as much between local secular schools. Rather, this is an issue of segregating out ‘your’ people from ‘another’ people. Indeed, how can we hope our children will respond and interact appropriately with people from different backgrounds if they have spent their entire childhood hiding from those same people? How can they hope to respond properly to others faiths if they have predominantly grown up in the presence of those who share their basic and fundamental views?

However, none of this is to suggest – as AC Grayling does – that faith schools are ‘an abuse’. Certainly, they are no more an abuse than private education and – as I stated from the outset – I would place faith schools in exactly the same bracket. Grayling’s article is faulty for several reasons.

Grayling asserts ‘figures reported in The Independent this week show that 132 of the 517 applications to open free schools in the past couple of years have come from faith groups‘. What he fails to tell us is that many of these applications were rejected, notably one from a Plymouth Brethren group the only details of which we are given is that they ‘teach creationism’. He then goes on to state ‘Creationists and fundamentalists of various stamps are eager to open schools so that they can proselytise the young, knowing that this is by far the chief way that religious belief survives in the world’. One is unsure what facts and figures Grayling has to back up the claim that ‘religion’ is propagated predominantly through faith schools. Such baseless comments are hardly following evidence where it leads.

Grayling also argues ‘education should be about how to think, not what to think; it should be about learning, enquiry, testing evidence and arguments, not indoctrination of the young into having “faith” in one or other of the many ancient belief systems that constitute religion’. Of course, very few would disagree. His implication, however, is that faith schools specifically ‘indoctrinate’ children into having a particular faith. One cannot help but feel OfSTED would most certainly be making enquiries and bringing schools into special measures if such were the case. Moreover, if this were the case, surely figures would bear out that the majority of children from a faith school background remain devout to that faith and I’m not so sure such evidence exists. Of course, this may simply mean these faith schools are rubbish at indoctrination but, if that is the case, Grayling has little to worry about as it suggests the minds of young children are not as easily manipulated as he thinks.

All of this is by the by. No Free School with a faith ethos is run upon the lines Grayling imagines. He tries to differentiate his own educational venture by arguing, ‘in being taught about religion (as opposed to being taught to believe religious dogmas), they will see for themselves the conflicting claims, the basis in ancient ignorance, and the too often baleful effects of religion on human lives and societies’. The inference is clearly that faith schools enforce religious doctrine rather than teach generally about religions. I must say, RE lessons in both faith and secular state schools do exactly what he outlines his educational institution is seeking to do. He has erected an imaginary approach to RE that simply does not exist either in faith or state schools. 

Nor has ‘creationism’ wormed into science classrooms by the back door. All GCSE biology examination boards require an understanding and knowledge of evolutionary theory and ask no questions about Intelligent Design or ‘Creationism’ of any form. Both faith schools and state schools are tied to the examination boards and must teach what they require. At best, certain teachers – and yes, perhaps a handful of schools – question elements of evolutionary theory and highlight some of its perceived flaws. But surely, at worst, this is just academic rigour and should be applauded? The only basis for upset would be if teachers and schools refused to teach evolutionary theory or they purposefully taught error to lead pupils to a false position. The former cannot occur due to the nature of independent exam boards and the latter would be a matter in which OfSTED would involve themselves and on which the exam results of that school would plummet, also causing OfSTED involvement. Surely Grayling isn’t suggesting that flaws (if there are any), or current unknowns within evolutionary theory cannot be explored at all? That hardly appears to support his view that ‘education should be about how to think, not what to think; it should be about learning, enquiry, testing evidence and arguments’. 

To save us from this imaginary evil, Grayling and others have created their own college. He states:

I and my colleagues at the New College of the Humanities have put in a bid to open a free school in Camden with a concentration in the arts and humanities. One stringent principle of its educational ethos is to be that pupils must be encouraged and equipped to think for themselves, to challenge, to ask questions, to have a very good case for committing themselves to any ideological viewpoint, whether political, religious or otherwise. That is the overwhelming responsibility of education.

So, just how different to a faith school is this new venture? AC Grayling is a Vice President of the British Humanist Association and himself committed to particular beliefs. His desire to encourage children to ‘have a very good case’ before committing themselves to anything is problematic when Grayling appoints himself arbiter of that which constitutes a ‘good case’. This is seen most pointedly in that he rejects the evidences and case put forward, both in debate and writing, of one of the world’s leading philosophers. This means any child who comes to a faith position must construct a better, stronger case than that put forward by Dr William Lane Craig before Grayling will approve it. On this evidence, one must say his approach is unlike any Free Schools with a faith ethos. For his approach will most certainly revolve around humanist indoctrination.

Grayling ends his article by arguing:

A young mind is a beautiful opportunity: receptive, curious, quick to soak up information and techniques; it is something to be treated with utmost respect, not twisted into shapes that conform to antique dogmas, but given every chance to grow and discover. That is what a free school should aim for: an education in intellectual autonomy.

The problem for Grayling is that he does not believe in true intellectual autonomy. Ultimately, he believes anyone who comes to a faith belief has, definitionally, reached a non-evidenced, baseless conclusion. As such, Grayling says that children can be autonomous as long as they autonomously reach his position. Such a view can hardly be said to be ‘not twisting minds into shapes that conform’.