Dominic Lawson: Critics of faith schools won't acknowledge why they succeed

An accumulated wisdom lies at the heart of many faith schools
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The Independent Online

If a class of adolescent children were to be allocated a new sex education teacher called Mr Balls, one would imagine that he would struggle to be taken seriously.

The nation, however, must not indulge itself in such juvenile high spirits, as it is indeed a Mr Balls – the "Children's Secretary" Ed Balls, to be precise – who is now putting through a Parliamentary Bill which for the first time makes sex education mandatory for pupils in all state schools.

The original Bill made absolutely no distinction between faith schools and all other institutions, but last week the Children's Secretary, allegedly as a result of lobbying by the Catholic Church of England and Wales, introduced an amendment which allowed any faith school to provide the mandatory "Sex and Relationship" education "in a way that reflects the school's religious character".

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers immediately protested that this would "place the religious character of the school above the promotion of equality and tolerance of diversity"; the Secretary of State reassured them, via a published letter in a newspaper, that all faith schools would, in their sex education classes, indeed be "required to promote equality and encourage diversity". Mr Balls concluded his letter with the observation that for young people to receive accurate information in such matters "is the bottom line". This completely finished me off – but then I admit to having found Frankie Howerd funny.

One can see Mr Balls's difficulties, however. On the one hand he is obsessively committed, in true New Labour style, to the promotion of "equality and diversity" – which in this context has a scope and meaning which one can only guess at; on the other hand it is simply the fact that a third of the maintained sector in this country consists of faith schools, and the Catholic ones among them – which happen to be thickest on the ground in Labour's urban constituencies – are especially disinclined to see sexual behaviour as a purely mechanical matter.

Such schools have a very strong culture, which should properly be described as counter-revolutionary, in view of the social trend of the past half-century towards almost anarchic liberalisation in the treatment and upbringing of children. Last week I had a tangible impression of this, in a visit to a maintained Roman Catholic secondary school. A photograph of the current Pope was prominent in the main hall; the waiting room was dominated by a vast print of that extraordinary Salvador Dali painting, "Christ of St John of the Cross".

Once into the classrooms, however, something quite distinct from mere religious affiliation was observable. That something, I can only describe as rigour. It was palpable not just in the pristine tidiness of every room or corridor we entered or in the fact that the entire class would stand up when the headmistress entered the room (and even the teachers addressed her as "Miss"). It was more of an accumulated sense of order and – yes – discipline. I felt almost as if I had been transported back into the Britain of my own childhood – and not just because of the age of the buildings.

I was not surprised to discover that, uniquely among the state secondary schools in that part of England, this school has GCSE results which in no way lag behind the much-better financed private schools in the same county. Of course, money helps to provide better facilities within the private sector, but this school, cramped as it seemed, and with no favours shown by the local authority in terms of new investment, was able to provide that most essential ingredient for educational progress – a calm and ordered atmosphere of dedication to learning.

Naturally, it does not require a Catholic, or even a religious culture to create such an atmosphere. I remember having exactly the same sensation when I visited a very poorly equipped school in Shanghai over 10 years ago; and I have visited academy schools in this country which had a similarly rigorous approach, but were funded via purely secular governing bodies. These, by the way, were in some of the poorest areas of the London inner city; the headmaster of one of them pointed out to me that it was precisely because so many of his pupils came from profoundly chaotic backgrounds of long-term familial unemployment and absent fathers that they required a degree of imposed order and discipline which might strike the outsider as draconian. Indeed, when I used that word to describe his methods, he said to me, "You have to understand where many of these children come from. They have been given no boundaries at all and desperately need the order we bring to their lives".

It's fair to say that the Catholic secondary school I saw last week was of a different social mix; and its secular critics would perhaps try to argue that its good academic results compared to neighbouring maintained schools might be because it has proportionately fewer pupils from deprived backgrounds. This is an accusation which is generally levelled against faith schools, to explain away their relative (though by no means invariable) academic success. At least at secondary level, it is an accusation unsupported by much evidence.

A year ago the House of Commons Library produced a thorough analysis, which showed that while 13.2 per cent of pupils at state secondary schools "with no religious character" were eligible for free school meals, the equivalent figure for Roman Catholic faith schools was 12.1 per cent. This is a much smaller difference than that between the rate of A* to C grades in five or more GCSEs; at the schools of "no religious character" those grades were attained by 64.5 per cent of pupils; at the maintained Roman Catholic faith schools, 72.8 per cent of pupils achieved that performance.

It's not quite the result that Richard Dawkins would have expected; and it helps to explain why even a Government whose instincts are profoundly opposed to much of what the Catholic Church stands for continues to finance such schools as a thriving part of the maintained sector.

There are those within New Labour – and some among the teaching unions – who will nevertheless insist that any good such faith schools achieve academically is more than outweighed by their "social divisiveness"; that they are obstacles to "social cohesion". That, too, is an argument in search of evidence.

Three months ago York University carried out a simple piece of research, analysing the extent to which Ofsted inspectors rated schools at achieving their new legal duty to "promote community cohesion". Of the secondary faith schools surveyed 32 per cent were rated "outstanding" at community relations, whereas of the non-faith school secondary schools surveyed, only 16 per cent were given the same grade. Naturally, such a single statistic does not settle this argument one way or the other; but I bet it came as a surprise to some in the Government.

What does all this have to do with the issue of mandatory "Sex and Relationship" teaching in faith schools? In one sense, nothing; but what it does demonstrate is that there is an accumulated social and educational wisdom at the heart of many of these schools and that it would be a very foolish government which imagined it knew better than they how to make the very best adults out of the children in their classrooms.

Whatever you might think about the doctrines of the various churches, and the families which adhere to them, you surely don't believe that morality is a matter best decided by politicians.