Should Atheists send their kids to faith schools?

I remember a conversation with a friend over a decade ago. He had been a parent for a few years, I wouldn’t be for quite a few more. Primary schools were occupying his thoughts, and it came up that they wanted to send their daughter to the local Church of England (CofE) school.

His family is a mixture of cultures and religions, and while not full atheists they were largely secular – and definitely not Anglican. I was shocked he was considering a faith school, and remarked that I – an atheist – could never send my child to a religious school. “You’ll be amazed at what comprises you’ll make for your child’s education” he said. “Ha!” I replied (or possibly thought).

Fast forward 10 years. It’s time for us to choose a school for our daughter. So, did I indeed compromise? Would I send her to a church school if it happened to be best – of least worst – option?

My wife was brought up a Christian, and still goes to church at Christmas if she can, so this bothers her far less than me.

Beggars can’t be choosers – local schools are oversubscribed

The town we have settled in has a mix of secular and church schools. It also has a recent history of having hideously oversubscribed primary schools. Many Londoners have moved to this commuter town, lured by (once) affordable housing and the good schools.

So what would be worse – attending a local faith school, or attending a non-faith school a town or two away with a much worse reputation?

In this context, I realised I had to at least consider sending our daughter to a local faith school. Which I hated. While I have a live and let live outlook towards religion, I am firmly secularist when it comes to education. I feel schools – at least state schools – should not be religious. If you want your child to engage in your religion, I don’t feel state school is the place for that.

My concerns about sending our daughter to a faith school were validated after attending an open day. The head teacher repeatedly stressed that this was a Christian school, and that ethos had to be respected by parents and children. I wasn’t sure I could fully be on board with that, if our daughter was taught something I didn’t believe in – or knew to be untrue.

But I carried on looking around, my heart sinking further as we were told of the weekly visits to church, the vicar who comes in to give sermons, the ‘prayer corners’ in every classroom. So much time and effort spent on religion instead of education and play.

But the worse thing I encountered encapsulated why I didn’t want to send my child to a faith school.

Education shouldn’t be about religion versus science

On the wall of a reception class, I spotted a word cloud collage the teacher had prepared, with answers from the children to a question she had set. The question?

‘How do you think God created the world?’

Just think about that for a moment. It wasn’t ‘How was the world created?’ but how did God create it. The phrasing of the question had taken out any room for a fact based answer. When religious speculation trumps scientific understanding in education, we have a problem.

So, this school was bottom of my list. So bottom, that I didn’t want her to go there. I didn’t even bother with the Catholic school, given I already had issues with the seemingly more progressive Anglican one.

But… we had four choices, and only 3 in our area were non-faith. We could either leave the 4th spot blank and risk her getting in no local schools, or send her to a faith school.

Do faith schools create children of faith?

I reflected that as a child I went to a pretty religious state school, where daily assemblies had hymns and bible readings, and RE was basically the history of the world according to the bible. It might as well have been a CofE school. And I still emerged from it a staunch atheist.

Perhaps I’d have to have ‘faith’ that our daughter would still be able to critically analyse what she was being taught, and not be indoctrinated – and would benefit from still being ‘local’.

As it turned out, she got into one of the local non-faith schools. Phew. It has a lower OFSTED rank, but a great community of engaged teachers, parents, and pupils working to make the school the best it can be – because we are all committed to it.

While I’m sure my daughter would have received a decent education at a church school, I’m not sure it would have been a positive experience for us as a family. I would feel compelled to contradict anything akin to the ‘God created the world’ statements of fact, which would essentially be me undermining the teachers authority. I also wouldn’t feel driven to become engaged in the school community, the way I am now.

Why are faith schools so popular?

It was interesting that while all the non-faith schools were over subscribed, the once bursting at the seams faith schools still have places available. They used to have strict entrance requirements about church attendance, which have now been relaxed to the point of being non-existent.

This is because 60 places had been added to the local primary school capacity a couple of years ago, because of the pressure on places. These 60 places were not at any of the faith schools.

Anecdotally, I know of many secular parents who lament the amount of ‘God’ at their child’s faith school. Perhaps they are like I would be, contradicting what their children learn in class, and not engaging in the school community as much as they might do otherwise.

I don’t think that’s a healthy environment to educate a child. So perhaps faith schools are best left to parents of faith – and us atheists should focus on getting our heathen schools up to scratch instead.

8 thoughts on “Should Atheists send their kids to faith schools?”

  1. What we’re struggling with at the moment is the ‘collective worship’ that has to be taught even in non faith schools. It has to be at least 51% Christianity and we’re finding that most schools talk about Christianity and then teaching ‘the other religions’. They’re all other religions for us. We can opt to remove him from this collective worship, but this then singles him out. So we are going to have to trust that he is as smart as he seems, and understands without us having to undermine the teachers (given I had a Catholic upbringing – fingers crossed he’ll be fine!)

    1. The requires daily worship that is christian in character – which interpreted in different ways according to headteacher. Some do sermons and bible readings, others simply address the pupils with morality tales and the like, deeming that to be broadly ‘christian’. I agree the law (from 1945) is outdated on this.

  2. As Wendy said above non church schools are still broadly Christian – how far that goes depends very much on the staff and on the make up of the school. Broadly Christian can mean ‘being kind to others’

    Personally I would get rid of state funded religious schools all together- in lots of areas it’s a way of getting close to private education without paying for it. Any school where the criteria for attending is more difficult than the standard automatically rules out a large number of children living in difficult circumstances situations so skews the intake.

    1. Yes to all of this. I feel the state had no business funding religious schools. The church/community should do it if that’s what they want.

  3. Gosh we’re dreading this. All of our local schools are (nominally at least) faith schools, unless we bankrupt ourselves to send our daughter to an independent school. I hope that we can give her the skills to appraise what she’s taught, but you don’t really want to be in a position where you’re in direct contradiction with the other adults in her life who she’s supposed to trust!

  4. We’ve just visited a few schools for your first child to enter in Sept 17.
    You’ve hit the nail on the bed with some of the thoughts we had. The better, on paper, CofE school that we visited seemed to have an excellent Religious Education program. Their RE policy document laid out some deep and ponderous questions that analysed all religions in fair and unbiased way.
    Unfortunately the visit showed us that this Policy was all just for show on the website and the actually classes were in no way as “enlightened”.
    The second one taught religion from an Us&Them stance, how in Hinduism different to us?
    I once felt like you, I couldn’t imagine the hypocracy of sending my kid to a faith school when I didn’t believe, but I failed to come up with an answer until now. These visits have made me more determined in my stance against faith schools and he will be attending the local community school that seems to fit into “our world” a lot more and we feel more comfortably engaging with.
    (And means I don’t have to lie to my kids!)

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