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.